To say the least, 2008 has been one of the worst years, for various reasons, in my lifetime.  Well, guess what?  Just when you thought it was safe to kiss it goodbye, we find we have to add a leap second to adjust for our planet’s slowing rotation.  

From CBS News:

[…] The custodians of time will ring in the New Year by tacking a “leap second” onto the clock Wednesday to account for the minute slowing of the Earth’s rotation. The leap second has been used sporadically at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich since 1972, an adjustment that has kept Greenwich Mean Time the internationally agreed time standard. 

Some scientists now say GMT should be replaced by International Atomic Time – computed outside Paris – because new technologies have allowed atomic time to tick away with down-to-the-nanosecond accuracy. 

But opponents say atomic time’s very precision poses a problem. 

A strict measurement, they say, would change our very notion of time forever, as atomic clocks would one day outpace the familiar cycle of sunrise and sunset. 

The time warp wouldn’t be noticeable for generations, but within a millennium, noon – the hour associated with the sun’s highest point in the sky – would occur around 1 o’clock. In tens of thousands of years, the sun would be days behind the human calendar. 

[…] Since the exact speed of the Earth’s rotation can’t be plotted out in advance, they’re added as needed. Sometimes, like this year, they’re added on Dec. 31, sometimes they’re inserted at the end of June 30. 

Those willy-nilly fixes can trip up time-sensitive software, particularly in Asia, where the extra second is added in the middle of the day. 

Critics say everything from satellite navigation to power transmission and cellular communication is vulnerable to problems stemming from programs ignoring the extra second or adding it at different times.

[…] At the Royal Observatory, 53-year-old homemaker Susie Holt was adjusting her wristwatch to match the digital display above the meridian. She said it would be a pity if GMT were made obsolete. Her daughter, 15-year-old Kirsty, was more forthright.

“We don’t want the French to control time,” she said. “They might get it wrong or something.” 

[…] “GMT is out of date,” she sniffed. 

She said she has been garnering considerable support, with the International Telecommunications Union – the arbiter of international time standards – considering a vote on a switch as early as next year, with a 2018 target to implement it. 

The U.S., France, Germany, Italy, and Japan were all on board, she said. 

But David Rooney, the Royal Observatory’s curator of time, defended leap seconds, saying they give everyone “the best of both worlds.” 

The arrangement, he said, allows satellites, physicists, and high-frequency traders to benefit from the accuracy of atomic time while keeping our clocks consistent with the position of the sun in the sky – and with GMT. 

The American Astronomical Society is officially neutral on the proposal to switch to atomic time, which is calculated based on readings from more than 200 atomic clocks maintained across the world. 

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