January 1st, 2009

Last night we, or rather our computers, gained an extra second (h/t Steve Benen). A leap second was intercalated at 11:59:60 last night courtesy of the Time Lords, aka the the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS). The solar system is slowly running down, so solar days and years get a bit longer all the time in atomic seconds. Since 1972 a leap second has been added about two years in three to keep atomic and solar time in sync.

Unfortunately the same lazy and ignorant programmers who brought you the Y2K problem find it taxing to incorporate leap seconds in the many devices that need an accurate time signal. The most important of these are GPS satellites and receivers. So industry has come up with a serious proposal to scrap leap seconds – and replace them with leap hours occasionally. The first one would come in about 5,000 years, by which time programmers may have learned some physics.

Astronomers are up in arms; they want clocks to keep their historic relationship to the macroscopic universe we live in and they observe. But there’s more than just aesthetics and observatory management at stake. Time zones and summer time are serious practical issues in many parts of the world. Farmers can just work by solar time, but industrial and information societies require exact temporal coordination over large areas, and many difficult compromises. The Scots argue whether it’s better for children to go to school in winter in the dark, or come home in the dark. These may not be critical problems, but they are both significant and insoluble by technical fixes. Allowing clocks to drift away from solar time by an hour makes the essential political debate and compromise even harder. So political scientists should join the astronomers and protest.

So we must firmly tell the Time Lords: no leap hours!

I don’t know about the astronomers, but politics can live with leap minutes, which would come about one every century. It’s surely not too much to ask of the programmers to cope with this.

Wikipedia Affiliate Button

Update 3 Jan

Microsoft illustrates my point.

Share this post:
  • Twitter
  • StumbleUpon
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook

Comments are closed.