Wait A Second: More Time on Your Hands This Year Than Ever Before

2012 is not going to be a regular run of the mill year. It is going to be the longest year of the decade. In February, the powers that be will be adding an extra day at the end of the month as they do every four years. And then in June, the powers that be will be adding an extra second into the last day of that month. This will make 2012 a super long year.

The reason for this messing with time, you probably know, is because the scientists who officially measured time for the first time back in the last century B.C. didn’t do the math exactly correctly. By the 16th century, it was found that the Julian method was way off and the calendar year—everybody agrees this is supposed to be the length of time it takes the earth to take a revolution around the sun—was too slow by at least six hours a year.

As a result, a huge 10-day correction had to be made in the 16th century. They had to add all those days back in. After that, so it wouldn’t happen again, a new rule was made that every four years we would add a day to the end of February to keep up with everything.

The extra second correction came about for a whole other reason. In the 1950s, scientists figured out a way they could accurately measure a day without having to keep track of the sunrises and sunsets. They observed that electrons inside an atom jiggled at a certain rate. Noting the number of jiggles involved in a 24-hour spin of the earth, they divided by 24 hours and by 60 and came up with the amount of jiggles that would represent one full second. From this, with certainty, they could calculate the day. And so they have, ever since.

It was a cute solution. Too cute. What has been found out during the last 60 years is that the earth doesn’t do a 24-hour revolution in exactly the same amount of time every day. Every day, by an infinitesimal amount, too infinitesimal to have been noticed when they set up the Atomic Clock, the earth spins slower than it did the time before. It has to do with friction or something. The earth makes its way through the cosmos. It gets harder and harder. So the number of electron jiggles is less. What to do?

The scientists met. This was around 1972. It was decided that when the earth fell behind a certain amount, they would add this extra second back in. They would meet once a year to see how the earth was doing. If it seemed the right time, they’d order the extra second inserted. The last time they added the second was 2008.

But times are changing. More and more, there are computers and watches and machinery around the world that are set to operate on Atomic Jiggly Electron Time. Although they were able to set up the four-year add-a-day feature, they have been unable to add any add-a-second feature for the obvious reason that this adding of the second takes place at the whim of the scientists. Whims never make it to computer chips.

For this reason, when it was announced a few months ago that this would be the year to add the new second, certain scientists, particularly in America and in other highly computerized countries around the world, said they wanted to abandon adding the extra second. Let the earth not keep up. Let it fall behind. Let the sun rise earlier every day and set earlier every day. It would be tens of centuries before it would be even noticeable. And then they could make one big, sort of charming, correction. As was done in 1582.

But doing it every five or six or 16 years? That was crazy. It would be a huge labor-intensive operation to do that, and each time, as more and more computers got tacked on, it would be even more so. Eventually—who knows? Perhaps there would be a big crash. Don’t even worry about the seconds being lost. Stay on course. Let the earth drift slower. All you’d have to do is adopt the Atomic Clock everywhere and let the old fashioned way of doing this—noting sunrises and sunsets—just be some quaint thing that used to work but no longer does.

When the request to abandon the add-a-second program went around though, it was found that most scientists liked the way things were. So what if we have to have it catch up with the Atomic Clock every decade or so? Remember 2000 when everybody thought a computer disaster would strike because of the turn of the century and the failure of computer clocks to have been programmed with more than the two digits from the 1900s? Nothing happened bad then. Nothing will happen bad now when we add the second. Why trouble trouble? Why imagine an imaginary disaster that won’t come?

In the end, the scientists voted to continue along with the plan to add the second at the end of June. But in acknowledgement of the doomsdayers, they also decided to review this decision again in three years.

So what are you going to do with your extra second? I know what I am going to do with mine.

At home in East Hampton I am going to organize all the junk I have accumulated in the basement. At work, I will start on still another memoir about all the fun I’m having writing my stories for Dan’s Papers. At play, I will take my wife on a trip to Paris, and we will come home on a cruise ship. And with the time left over after all that, I will go to a spa and learn yoga and spiritual peace and quiet to make myself a better person. I will also learn the art of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, something I’ve been putting off and putting off.

See you after the second is over.

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