I sure hope this has been a good year for you, because, if it hasn’t, you’re going to have to suffer through it a bit longer.
That’s because the people in charge of time have decided to add one second to 2016.
I didn’t even know there were people in charge of time, but apparently there are. They work at the International Time Bureau. And they’re French!
The Bureau International de l’Heure (BIH) is located in Paris (here’s a picture of its head timekeeper*). It cannot possibly be a good idea for time to be based in a city where anybody can go on strike at any moment so that an American family visiting Paris primarily to go to museums cannot go to museums because the friggin’ museum curators are on strike, so this American family ends up going to a lot of cafes where French people bring their dogs inside, presumably so the dogs can enjoy all the secondhand cigarette smoke, plus it turns out that Notre Dame, which this family can get into, is just some old church and doesn’t even have a hunchback or a football team.
Anyway, that was our experience.
But I digress.
So what happens if the timekeepers go on strike because, let’s say, they want to work fewer hours? That wouldn’t just be a work stoppage, it would be an everything stoppage! We can only hope they walk off the job during happy hour.
The reason the BIH is in charge of time is that it has an atomic clock which uses cesium atoms to determine the exact length of a second. (Unless your Rolex has cesium atoms in it, you overpaid for it.) The atomic clock is supposed to keep accurate time for at least 300 million years, but apparently the atomic clock has fallen out of sync with the rotation of the Earth. And, of course, it’s out of warranty. (The clock, not the Earth.**)
Most people, if their clocks fell out of sync with their planet, would go out and buy a new clock, unless they happened to own a $500,000.00 clock. The BIH does, so they’re not about to replace it so quickly. In fact, it’s blaming the Earth! (“J’accuse!”) Those French timekeepers are saying their atomic clock is doing just fine, but that our planet is slacking off. This is kind of like blaming Kim Kardashian’s cell phone for the fact that Kim posts so many naked selfies.
Scientists say that warmer and denser waters from El Nino, the melting of polar ice, the pull of the moon, the sloshing of the planet’s molten core and other factors have slowed the Earth’s rotation so that it can’t quite complete a spin in 24 hours anymore.
I get it. Most of us can’t move around as quickly as we once did. My favorite of the causes of this phenomenon is the “sloshing of the planet’s molten core.” That’s quite a mental image, isn’t it? Perhaps Earth shouldn’t have consumed so much beer during the Ice Age.
In any case, the BIH has decided that, in order to be able to say their atomic clock is on time, they have to add a second to 2016. They call it a Leap Second.
Like the uninvited guest who shows up late for dinner and screws up the seating arrangement, this Leap Second will be grafted on right at the end of the year so that, on December 31, after the clock hits 11:59pm and 59 seconds, it will become 11:59:60 before it hits midnight.
I hope somebody tells Ryan Seacrest about this.
Many officials around the world are calling for the cancellation of the Leap Second because it could cause all sorts of problems with computer systems, much in the same way Y2K didn’t. You remember Y2K, don’t you? That’s when we were all warned to stock up on supplies because every computer in the world, including little Johnny’s GameBoy, was going to crash spectacularly, but nothing happened except that we ended up with a dozen cans of Mandarin oranges which, for some reason, was my wife’s idea of stocking up on supplies.
Where was I?
According to National Geographic, if we didn’t periodically add these Leap Seconds, by the year 2100 we’d be off the atomic clock by a few minutes. By 2700, we’d have an extra half hour each day.
So what’s the problem? How often have you lamented that there weren’t enough hours in a day?
You have to remember that the concept of time is a human construct in the first place. As recently as the 19th Century, there was no standard time. It could be whatever time you wanted it to be. If your client wanted you to call at 4pm, you’d pretty much be on time as long as the sun was still up.***
The reason they eventually standardized time was so you could know how late the Amtrak train was. And even after that, we played around with time whenever we felt like it. You think the sun knows when it’s Daylight Savings Time? Or that we’ve changed when Daylight Savings Time is numerous times over the years?
It does not. And it doesn’t care.
You know how long a day is? By definition, it’s the length of time it takes the Earth to make one rotation. In this regard, good old American NASA disagrees vehemently with the French. According to NASA, it takes our planet 23 hours and 56 minutes to complete a rotation, which is bad news for the 24-hour news networks. It also means we’ve been cheating this whole time anyway. If NASA is correct, we shouldn’t be having Leap Seconds; in fact, we should be looking forward to the day when the Earth has slowed down another 240 seconds so that its day will be the same as our day.
Are you following all this?
But, no, those French people can’t be bothered to reset their friggin’ atomic clock. So instead, some poor bastard is going to have to freeze his ass off in Times Square on New Year’s Eve and hold up the ball for a second like Atlas holding up the world.
On the other hand, thousands of years from now, that will probably be the least of our problems.
So we should all petition the Bureau International de l’Heure to forget the whole Leap Second thing. Only, don’t do it in English; they’ll ignore you.
See you soon.
*Not really. **Actually, both.
***Also, you had to wait for the phone to be invented.