Boy, am I rested after getting an extra second.

I’m going to do another science post, but this one I can tie back to advertising.

As you may have heard, an extra second added to the official timekeeping record Saturday triggered several popular Internet services to crash over the weekend, including LinkedIn, Reddit and Quantas airline’s reservation system.  Enough problems were documented around the globe that some even likened leap second change to another Y2K.  Now, imagine that you were launching a major online campaign and the entire site went down – then you’d wish that you had paid attention to the leap second!  Hey, I never said it would be a strong link between science and advertising.

So what is a leap second and what does it matter?

Well, historically, humans based time on the average rotation of the Earth relative to other celestial bodies, with the second defined by this frame of reference. However, the invention of atomic clocks — accurate to about one second in 200 million years — brought about a definition of a second independent of Earth’s rotation. Instead, they’re based on a consistent signal emitted by electrons changing energy states within an atom.

This rotational time, called UT1, divides the day into 86,400 seconds.  Unfortunately, Earth has been falling behind the atomic time at a rate of about 2 milliseconds per day, currently trailing the atomic time by six-tenths of a second, because Earth spins a bit slower each year due to tides and internal processes that create a gap between the two scales.  So, every now and then a leap second must be added to atomic clocks (and thus all of our clocks) to keep in sync with Earth’s oddball rotation.  Coordinated universal time (UTC) is an atomic time scale derived from a variation of the metallic element cesium’s atom. This truly atomic “clock” ticks with microwave light about nine billion times each second, allowing us to slice and dice time with extreme precision.  The official UTC time is set by the Paris-based International Bureau of Weights and Measures, which gathers contributions from labs in some 50 nations and computes an internationally agreed-on average.

The International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service monitors this difference and periodically inserts a leap second to keep the two in tandem.

The difference between atomic and rotational time is tiny—only an hour or so every thousand years.  But the leap second causes a host of timekeeping issues, because no clock can accommodate an extra second. Instead, clocks are traditionally stopped at 23:59:59 for one second—but life goes on, and gets in the way.

“It might seem stupid to say that you have a difference of only one second,” Elisa Felicitas Arias of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures told National Geographic News in 2008.  “But for the stock exchange, one second is important. For an airport, one second is important. For global navigation satellite systems, the difference of a second is unacceptable.”  Navigation systems work by measuring the time it takes a signal to travel between a known satellite location and a receiver. Such systems require extreme precision on the level of nanoseconds, or billionths of a second.  “In one billionth of a second, light travels about one foot [30 centimeters],” said Dennis McCarthy of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.  “So for navigational accuracy, [even a] billionth of a second can be important.”

Mobile phone networks have blacked out in past years when their timekeeping got out of sync because of failure to observe the leap second, said Judah Levine of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado.  The electric power grid is also vulnerable.  “Companies share power and it’s very important that all generating stations are running at the same frequency,” said Levine, sometimes called the nation’s timekeeper. “That’s a very serious issue.”

It’s possible, however, that there may not be a need for future leap seconds to be inserted.  In fact, Arias of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures is part of a working group that’s arguing to abolish the leap second.  “The leap second was created in 1972 because there was a need to have a time scale somehow linked to rotational time,” she said.  “At that time celestial navigation was common, and people needed to have time linked to the rotation of the Earth.”  “Today we don’t need to the leap second for navigation, because the GPS system exists for finding directions in the sea, or anywhere on Earth.”

But if the leap second is abolished, it could cause problems for astronomers. Complex adjustments may be needed for research that has long relied on a strong connection between clocks and the sun.  For now, the leap second ticks on, despite the fact that its implications can rattle even the nation’s timekeeper.  “It can become super-duper confusing,” Levine said.

This past Saturday was the 25th time a leap second has been added since the practice started in 1972. The most recent leap second occurred in 2008 on New Year’s Eve.  This added second gave 2012 an extra one day and one second, as 2012 was also a leap year — when a day is added at the end of February to address a discrepancy between our 365-day calendar and the time it takes the Earth to circle the sun.

So the next time you are preparing a big campaign, be sure to check if the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service is planning on inserting a leap second to the clocks.

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