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Small Wonders: This will only take a second

June 29, 2012|By Patrick Caneday

You learn something new every day. Every second, in fact.

I was sitting in a meeting at work recently, in a gilded conference room high above our haze-shrouded city, surrounded by some of the most frighteningly intelligent minds in the entertainment industry: broadcast engineers.

These are the men and women who find joy in tracking and configuring satellite uplinks, manipulating the traffic of media files through vast chasms of servers and transmitters into our homes. They play chess with rocket scientists and brain surgeons. These guys invented the Internet.

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And, in a rare occurrence, they said something that I almost, kind of, understood.

Time itself is about to change.

At the end of the day today, June 30, Earth, and every passenger upon it, will get one additional second of time.

That's right. Time is being adjusted.

Leap Second is here. Are you ready?

The gravitational tugging of moon and sun upon our planet not only creates totally excellent surfing conditions and opportunities to pull mollusks from temporarily empty coastal inlets. It also toys with the heavenly rotation of our little rock to the extent that the length of a day has increased roughly 2.5 milliseconds since 1820.

Introduced in 1971 by the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, leap seconds are man's attempt to reconcile astronomical time (measured by the rotation of the Earth) with physical time (measured by atomic clocks), the latter running slightly ahead of astronomically defined time. This reconciliation is done by adding one second to time whenever the pocket protector collectors at the IERRSS deem necessary — usually every couple of years.

Without the leap second, proponents argue, we would someday enjoy our nightly cocktails for breakfast.

Get it? Me either. But I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

As the megaminds in the conference room pondered how to fill that extra moment of advertiser-ready airtime and how to resynchronize every clock on every computer in a very complex chain of television broadcast systems, my simple mind became a satellite itself, wandering off in a remote orbit of thought, pondering the impact time-tinkering might have on the rest of us common folk.

Think of how many times in a day you respond to a mundane request, “Just give me one second.”

Well, you are about to get it.

It's enough time for an extra sneeze, a furtive glance or an eternity of waiting if you are one of my kids asking for a juice box, $20 or a jet pack.

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