World timekeepers split on scrapping leap second

Jan 19, 2012
A Pentagon clock knocked from a wall in the September 11 attacks, now on display at Washington's Smithsonian Museum.Timekeepers meeting in Geneva on Thursday failed to agree on a proposal to abolish a 40-year-old practice of adding the occasional second to world time.

Timekeepers meeting in Geneva failed to agree Thursday on a proposal to abolish a 40-year-old practice of adding the occasional second to world time.

The International Telecommunication Union put off a decision, saying more study was needed into whether to scrap the leap second -- the extra moment added to atomic clocks to keep them in sync with the earth's rotation, which is slowed by the gravitational pull of the Sun and the Moon.

"The decision that we will take is that it is not approved and the matter is to be referred to study group seven for more study," Alan Jamieson, chairman of the ITU's Radiocommunication Assembly, said at the close of the meeting.

The decade-long debate has split ITU member countries.

Every time a second is added, the world's computers need to be manually adjusted, a costly practice that also boosts the risk of error.

Without the leap second, hi-tech clocks would race ahead of solar time, amounting to a discrepancy of about 15 seconds every 100 years, experts believe.

"The social, legal, religious implications (of scrapping the leap second) have not been studied properly," said British representative Stephen Bond, while the US said the increasing use of satellite-based navigation systems favoured its suppression.

A leap second has been added on 24 occasions since the ITU defined Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) 40 years ago.

When required, they are always introduced at midnight on June 30 or December 31.

Seventy countries were represented at Thursday's gathering, with the US, France and Japan among those favouring the scrapping of the leap second, while Britain, China and Canada said further study was needed.

"The use of these seconds introduces the possibility of technical problems each time they are inserted into UTC," said US representative Dick Beaird.

"This can impact the safety and reliability of systems dependent on precision time keeping.

"Systems for space activity, global navigation, satellite systems and so forth require a continuous, uninterrupted time reference."

Bond said the decision was one of "great significance" that would be reflected on by future generations and its approval would be premature.

"The common public understanding of the civil time of day is that it is closely linked to the earth's rotation," he said.

"There may be public opposition to ending the linkage and the fact that the day will no longer be matched by a single rotation of the earth."

The future of the leap second will be further debated at the ITU's World Radiocommunication Conference beginning next week.

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User comments : 9

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1 / 5 (2) Jan 19, 2012
One has to believe that doing away with leap seconds is due to the inability of many to understand the science behind it. Computers do not have a problem with leap seconds, ignorant people do. This reminds me of when most people thought that the millennium ended when it became the year 2000. Not understanding the calendar didn't make them correct. The standards set up in the SI system may be difficult to fully understand, but they are there because it is necessary to have a consistent system within which scientists can exchange information without misunderstanding. Just wait until all of the SI units are based on the fundamental constants of physics. That will probably kill anyone who has a problem with leap seconds. It is not necessary for everyone to understand it for it to be the way we need to do it.
not rated yet Jan 19, 2012
To chardo137> yes, I agree with you about the scientific aspect... however, "The social,legal,religious implications (of scrapping the leap second) have not been studied properly," said British representative Stephen Bond. Seriously, the social? I can *almost* see legal and religious, but social? Since the vast majority of people and companies barely notice the meriad clocks and watches that are out of sync, I don't believe 15 seconds per century makes a flippin flip to people.

How about scientist and companies who need that precision keep with the status quo and normal people and businesses go with a leap minute every 400 years.
1 / 5 (3) Jan 19, 2012
"...amounting to a discrepancy of about 15 seconds every 100 years..."

Geeze! And I thought I was obsessing over having to reset my clock when it was five minutes off in a month! Fifteen seconds in 100 years... man, that's going to make me late for all my appointments, for sure... LOL

And I'll bet they'll waste several thousand dollars quibbling over this bit of trivia. Perhaps for the GPS systems to keep in proper alignment, it is necessary for this sort of precision; but what does it mean to the average person? Absolutely NOTHING!
1 / 5 (7) Jan 19, 2012
Instead of 9 192 631 770 transistion periods (per definition) simply redefine the second to 9 192 632 062 (current second length) then add 0 000 003 724 transitions each year.

How do we measure accurately the position of the Earth in space so as to resolve the length of one year with such precision?

How far does the Earth travel in less than one tenth of a second? (15 S in 100 years)?

0.1 / 5 (22) Jan 19, 2012
A good system would be to monitor the locatio of the north and south pole every day, then from that point look at the suns position to determine time of day. not sure about dates and years, maybe we should start using lightyears.
not rated yet Jan 20, 2012
It is a 'right horse for the right course' situation. Some applications such as GPS absolutely do not need (and already do not include) leap seconds. Other applications, such as GMT, utilities, and some astronomy absolutely do need it. So they need to agree to disagree depending on their respective discipline, and then to choose the right time source for each application. I'm sure the worlds engineers and scientists can cope with this just fine. You can't square a circle.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 20, 2012
This has all the earmarks of a storm-in-tea-cup.
The present system appears to be working well and inconveniencing a very small group of people.
Ny verdict is ti leave it as it is until a better system that accommodates every ones needs is developed.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 20, 2012
..leave it as it is until a better system that accommodates every ones needs is developed.

The needs of each side is mutually exclusive with the needs of the other - there can be no one solution. That is the crux of the problem and the sooner they realise that this is all political nonsense, the sooner they can all get on with something more important.

One side needs ultra-precision timing that is at all times as consistent and as predictable as the technology permits. The other needs a system where small variations are permitted to be introduced such that the natural system of the relative position of the Earth to the Sun is represented and does not drift.
not rated yet Jan 20, 2012
kaasinees said:

"maybe we should start using lightyears."

I am sure everyone here knows, but just in case there are readers who don't, a lightyear is a measure of distance, not time. This might have been a sarcastic comment but I can't be sure from the way it was written.

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