By: Alan May
Everyone has heard of a leap year – the extra day in February is familiar to all of us. But how many people would become agitated over a leap second – a second added to one day every couple of years to keep the international calendar on track? Evidently at least 700, the number of delegates attending a United Nations conference on the subject held Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland.
The concept of the leap second was implemented in 1972 because of Earth’s slightly irregular cycles of movement; every once in a while, the planet doesn’t go quite the way it’s supposed to and even the most accurate atomic clock gets out of sync with the cycles of day and night. Although the increments of variation are tiny, it has been calculated that over a period of 100,000 years they could slowly move noon forward until it rests sometime in the early morning.
Two sides have emerged in the debate: of approximately 70 nations attending the conference, three (the United Kingdom, Canada, and China) want to keep leap seconds and thirteen – including the United States – would prefer to abolish them. Proponents of the leap second are favored by the simple argument that their idea will keep international time related to the sun; countries arguing for repeal claim that the leap second increases the chance of a disastrous mistake in business sectors – such as air traffic control and financial markets – that rely on agreed correct time.
Although the opponents of the leap second appear so far to be ahead, the real power in deciding the question – if it comes to a vote – lies with the more than 50 undecided countries. We’ll know more about the fate of noon when results arrive from Geneva.
Chang, Kenneth. “A Second Here a Second There May Just Be a Waste of Time.” New York Times 19 Jan. 2012: A1+. Print.
“Wall clock.” Photograph. DIYTrade: Global B2B Trading Platform. DIYSite.com, 1999-2012. Web. 19 Jan. 2012. < http://www.diytrade.com/china/4/products/7032905/
Study Questions (just in case):
1. Discuss, briefly, some of the pros & cons of the leap second.
2. Which side of the argument do you think is more likely to prevail?
3. Why is this such a big deal anyway? Explain briefly why the leap second might be important.