News Analysis: A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME: Time Lords ; American Scientists Want to Change the Way the World's Clocks Are Set, Abandoning Methods Used since the Dawn of History
Moreton, Report Cole, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
What did you do with the extra second last night? Take another cup of kindness? Let a New Year kiss linger on the lips? Wonder why the radio was playing an extra pip?
If you didn't even notice the leap second being added to all our lives at midnight then that's a shame, because it may be the last. Time, the universal notion that underpins everything we do, is changing: becoming ever more accurate and powerful, it may also be about to split apart.
The trouble is that the experts who are supposed to tell us what time it is cannot agree how to do so. The time lords are falling out, as one group argues for the world to abandon ancient methods of timekeeping and rely solely on super-accurate atomic clocks instead.
Systems such as the new Galileo satellite, launched last week, use atomic time to keep planes in the air and cities moving. American scientists believe it is time to measure out our lives only according to the rate at which the atoms of caesium-133 vibrate. They are opposed by equally passionate astronomers who are keen that we should all continue to measure time by using the movement of the sun in the sky to define a day.
These two versions of time have drifted 32 seconds apart, because the rotation of the Earth is irregular and slowing down. But since 1972 they have been reconciled to within 0.9 seconds of each other using leap seconds announced from the Paris Observatory. This produces a compromise called Co-ordinated Universal Time, which is why the most accurate clocks in the world were set to show an extra second as 23:59:60 last night, before 00:00:00.
Many other clocks and computers also had to be reset, by operators who really did not see the point. They call leap seconds a dangerous and unnecessary disruption to the complex software used to run everything from mobile phone networks and power grids to traffic lights and life-support systems. That is why American scientists have proposed abolishing the leap second " or at least letting their own version of time drift as much as an hour away from old- fashioned 'sun time' before it has to be reset, which could take hundreds of years. The prevalence of technology would then make atomic time the standard, and the old kind just a minority pursuit.
The world's top techies first challenged the stargazers at a meeting in Geneva in November, but they agreed to disagree until after last night's leap second. The debate continues to tick away like a time bomb inside the International Telecommunications Union, where governments and private companies work together to keep the blizzard of emails, radio and television broadcasts, faxes, phone calls, satellite signals and internet activity in the world from meltdown. All these things rely on accurate digital sources of time " which is why technology and the corporations funding it are pushing a debate that could lead to the most profound change in the way we measure time since the beginning of human history.
We have always instinctively measured time according to the movement of the sun. The Egyptians had sundials dividing daylight into 10 parts, plus one for dawn and one for dusk. Water clocks measured out the time from when the sun appeared overhead at noon to when it returned the next day, but the use of 24 identical hours became widespread only with the weight-driven mechanical timepieces of the 15th century.
This story is told at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, where tourists from Australia and Japan stand astride the meridian and have themselves photographed with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and one foot in the west. 'The centre of time and space,' is what Greenwich calls itself, with language echoing the days of certainty, precision and empire. (The train drivers of the Raj were regulated by time defined here.)
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Publication information: Article title: News Analysis: A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME: Time Lords ; American Scientists Want to Change the Way the World's Clocks Are Set, Abandoning Methods Used since the Dawn of History. Contributors: Moreton, Report Cole - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent on Sunday (London, England). Publication date: January 1, 2006. Page number: 14,. © 2009 The Independent on Sunday. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.