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Andrew Alden

Much Ado over a Second

By January 20, 2012

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In some respects, science is so far advanced that something the experts consider trivial is astonishing to the public. For a long time, many decades, we've routinely monitored the Earth's daily rotation to within tiny fractions of a second. But nobody notices until the planet gets a little off, and the clocks need to be adjusted. The first "leap second" was inserted into the record 40 years ago, in 1972. Now the telecom gurus who run the world's central communication systems are getting tired of dealing with leap seconds and want to call them off. Who cares about the planet any more, they argue. Scientists care, of course, and other extreme precisionists. But the dispute, which came up at a Geneva meeting of the International Telecommunication Union when a recommendation to drop leap seconds could not be agreed upon, is considered headline news today because it just seems so bizarre to everyday people.

I've written an explainer about the larger field of length-of-day studies. This line of research has been going on for centuries and is unexpectedly fruitful.


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