Just a second

August 15, 2005

YET AGAIN, the universe and humanity are at odds, and again, humanity has to blink. But if the precision-loving United States has its way, setting clocks the astronomical way - with its tiny variations for the Earth's slightly irregular rotation - could be a thing of the past.

Heaven forbid.

All the fancy atomic clocks in the world will have to add a blip, one second long, to the last minute of this year because, well, the Earth didn't quite keep up with its spinning. This will be the 23rd such second added since 1972; the last one was added in 1998.

This is annoying for those who must ensure that the millions of finely tuned Internet switches and cell phone towers can handle a 61st second now and again. Which is why the United States proposed to a U.N. timekeeping group (the international arbiters) last year that we do away with these pesky little fixes. By 2007.

But wait. Why should we disconnect time from the real world? Why should a day be counted as 86,400 seconds instead of one rotation of the Earth? Why break all the sundials and sextants, which would slowly start giving false readings forever more as the Earth-day slipped further behind "official time"? Just because it's trouble for a few engineers?

Fix the engineers.

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