(WTNH) Ready to be a time traveler? Good, because you have no choice. Tomorrow at midnight, it will remain tomorrow at midnight for one extra second. Weird, right?
Actually, not so much. There have been 25 so-called leap seconds since 1972. They’re periodic adjustments of the world’s atomic clocks to match actual astronomical time, i.e., time as determined by the rotation of the earth. Since the rotation of the earth is slightly irregular — which might explain why everything hasn’t felt quite right your entire life — atomic tweaks have to be made to the clocks, so that GPS systems and the internet and other small matters can keep doing that thing they do.
Reading over what I’ve written so far, it’s not really coming across as….scientific. So let me turn the floor over to those crazy cats at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Physical Measurement Laboratory:
“By keeping Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) within one second of astronomical time, scientists and astronomers observing celestial bodies can use UTC for most purposes. If there were no longer a correction to UTC for leap seconds, then adjustments would have to be made to time stamps and legacy equipment and software which synchronize to UTC for astronomical observations. However, adding a second to UTC can create problems for some systems, including data logging applications, telecommunication systems and time distribution services. Special attention must be given to these systems each time there is a leap second.”
Thanks, fellas. I’ll take it from here. The “special attention” part refers to the possibility that the tiny adjustment between human time and time time can lead to failure in digital cloud storage systems, like those owned by Amazon and Google. Past leap seconds have caused problems with popular websites including Reddit and Netflix. Stock markets are closing their after-hours sessions early to make adjustments. They (people who understand these things, which I obviously don’t) have ways of fixing it. I’m sure it will all work out .
That’s partly because it feels a little like the Y2K “crisis” back when 1999 was turning into 2000. There were worries — lots and lots of worries — that computers with yearly time stamps which only used the last two digits wouldn’t think it was 2000 but 1900, when they didn’t even have computers and all sorts of apocalyptic hell was going to rain down on us, good people and sinners alike.
Didn’t happen at all, but — in a quick digression here — making Y2K adjustments was the cubicle farm job held by the lead character in the comedy classic movie “Office Space.” If for no other reason than that, the Y2K panic had a purpose.
Don’t think we’ll see any pop culture sensations based on leap second panic — besides the one you’re reading, of course — but you still have an extra second of your life to reckon with. Comment me, and let me know how you plan to spend yours. For people like me living “la vie morning news,” I’ll spend mine getting an extra second of sleep. And, believe me I’ll enjoy it. Every second of it.