The Leap Second &
The Doomsday Clock

Just when you were ready to celebrate the fact that summer this year will last a bit longer, and we mean, a very tiny, teeny little bit longer, here comes the buzzkillers to tell you that we’re actually wasting it, meaning, that we’re in fact very late and even close to the end.
These are but just two of the ways that we obsess with measuring time, or at least, fool ourselves with the illusion that time can be measured. But at the end of the day, we’re no better than that Lewis Carroll rabbit, always rushing, insanely busy and ever so late.
And if you thought that such obsession is a mere product of our modern times, hum so over the top and, as that old Lennon song would say, running everywhere at top speed, you haven’t heard the one about the South Pacific.
As it turns out, a tiny, teeny sun-drenched island decided that it had to do some catch up with time of its own, and get in line with the same time zone of nearby Australia, New Zealand and Tonga. The good folks of Samoa did, then, some unheard of in a very long time: they’ve skipped a whole day.
24 HOURS PEOPLE
Samoa paid with a whole Friday, the very last of last year, its entry into the time zone of its bigger neighbors. Something to do with trade partnerships and commerce, we heard. But what do you know? From Thursday straight to Saturday, it was all blue skies and not a drop of rain, so who’s complaining?
We are, that’s who. Imagine we, New Yorkers, wasting so senselessly a whole Friday. What were we supposed to tell folks at home? That we got mugged? The cat stole it? The NYPD seized it? We may know of many a couple who wouldn’t be able to get over that kind of late night talk.
Not the Samoans, apparently. And considering the whole history of our Gregorian calendar, the many times it got tweaked and manipulated and changed and adapted to the mores of the pope in charge or king of Prussia on duty, it’s actually a small miracle we can’t find more excuses to skip a Monday or two too.
YEAR OF THE LEAP
But 2012 is a leap year, someone would say, so there’s already some kind of trend apace, and just like that rabbit, or Oscar Pistorius, the Blade Runner, what difference a small leap in time would make?
That probably would be a good rationale behind the U.S. Naval Observatory‘s decision to skip a second this summer, apparently. But not quite. As we measure time ever more precisely, guess who actually sometimes sags behind? that old home of ours, Earth.
So to adjust the exact passage of time, as measured by atomic clocks, and the natural movement of the planets, which, granted, gave us the idea of counting time in the first place, there’s a need to add a second to the mix. Which very few people will probably notice it, we’re sure.
It may take much more than a minute, and a considerably better writer, to add some detail and color to this business, without confusing everyone.
For all our concerns about time, it was only in 1956 that the International Committee for Weights and Measures made the decision to calculate the exact length of a second based on the year, not by any of the 86,400 contained in a day. That had to do with the mentioned sloppiness of our home planet to keep up with our modern methods of measuring time.
The new calculation determined the length of the second at exactly 1/31,556,925.9747, and the decision was kind of retroactive, arching back to the year of our, er, theirs, er, somebody’s lord of 1900. January, to be precise. Are you still with us? We may ask you questions later.
COUNTING ATOMS
Don’t worry, we’re just about done. The atomic clock as a timekeeping system was adopted in 1972, and it was through it that a certain 0.73 seconds was observed to be lagging, from the slowing rotation of the Earth.
That’s when it became clear that every once in a while a second had to be added, and it’s up to the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service to keep track of that and our own time in synch with the machines and the planets and everything else. Oh, in time, the extra second will be added at the end of June, in case you were wondering and wanted to make preparations, throw a party or something. To be honest, this whole conversation may be a waste of time.
The truth is, we observe nature and then create machines to emulate it, and then we decide that the machines are performing better than nature, then we have to correct nature, and then we lose our ways and have to start it all over again, and so on and so forth.
THE ALARMING CLOCK
Now, for the really bad news, we move on to another concept created in 1947, when it first dawned on human conscientiousness that we had the power to destroy the whole planet in ways that we never had before. And we were, in fact, heading straight to such scenario, if we didn’t change our ways.
We didn’t, actually, but found a system to monitoring them. That’s when the Doomsday Clock was idealized. But wait, that doesn’t mean that there is such a thing as a working clock, automatically representing the many forms we find each day to increase or diminish the risk of exploding the planet.
It’s more like a concept, that takes into account the estimated number of weapons of mass destruction around, their availability, global and local conflicts, and now more than ever, climate change too. Of course the periodic, personal appearance of a mass murderer always makes things a bit more complicated.
But the fact is that, even if things remain exactly as they are now, that conceptual countdown to Armageddon is still on. Some would even say, that’s why the Samoans’ wasteful act of throwing away a brand new Friday is so tragic.
We wouldn’t sweat such small stuff, though. Instead, the idea is to remind everyone that we need to find ways to delay the seemingly inexorable march of invisible hands towards self-annihilation.
IT’S FIVE TO MIDNIGHT
So, in a sober conference earlier this month in Washington, D.C., the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) set the hands of the infamous clock forward one minute from two years ago.
The panel considers a mix of long-term trends and immediate events in the decision-making process. Changing attitudes toward climate change, for example, or a nuclear disaster such as the Fukushima in Japan are some of the factors considered in the decision.
There’s much fear about the nuclear ambitions by Middle Eastern and Asian countries, for example, and we bet that deniers of the damage caused by man-made pollution in the environment also weight heavily when it comes the time to adjust the clock.
But we’ve been in worst shape than now, and in 1949, the clock was set to three minutes to midnight. At the same time, in 1991, with the end of the Cold War and warming of the Russian-U.S. relations, we were at our most optimistic, at seven minutes from the end.
THAT OLD THIEF TIME
That’s right, we were happy and didn’t even know it. That’s why we should be concerned about what exactly we are doing to prevent a doomsday no one would want to happen. But there should also be a certain even-handed attitude about our chances of survival.
We do have an obligation and the duty of leaving a better world for our children than the one we found, no question about it. But we need to also strike the right balance of awareness for action with a proper measure of optimism and hope in the future.
Otherwise we’re again just like that rabbit, always busy, always running, lecturing everyone and preaching on the converted, but painfully ineffective when it comes to do something about it.
Anyone would be surprised by what can be crammed inside a flash, a brief, an ever so eluding piece of time as a precious second. You’d better order some catering.

No, Wait

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About colltales

Writer, musician, news professional. World citizen, downtown New York City. Some acting, few screen writings, endless clashes with reality. Brazilian by birth, multilingual by chance, cash strapped as usual. Agnostic but partial for great soccer. Unmoved by sunsets, sunflowers, full moons or drunken dawns. Poor vision, lower back pain and a bottomless pit for a navel. Blue, cats, left, 9, heat and outer space. Common ground need not to apply. Not accepting advice at this time.

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