Wait a second more!

ONE second is not very important. For that matter, hours, days, months or even years don’t add anything significant to many ordinary lives. But in space age technologies a second or a millionth of it can spell success or doom for hi-tech gadgets, which work with clockwork precision. As this year comes to an end tonight, the ‘leap second’ controversy has once again leapt out of the closets of physicists and astronomers.

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Published: Sat 31 Dec 2005, 10:04 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:10 PM

A leap second is the product of atomic clocks. Their calibrations are based on vibration of atoms with an accuracy level of less than one second for 20 million years whereas the conventional timepieces follow standard time practices developed according to the movement of heavenly bodies, which varies a bit over a period of time, necessitating adjustments in astronomical time. At a particular point, the atomic time clocks in an extra second over sun and moon-dictated one. Thus a leap second is born and it came this time after a gap of seven years.

That may be of great interest to those dealing with time and space, but not to us. Nor does it make any terrible difference to our daily lives. It’s not even noticeable unlike a leap year, which comes once in every four years when a day is added to February. However, its key role in precision equipment, software applications and space probes has created a miniscule of difference between astronomical and atomic clocks — and problems for the scientific community and divisions among its members.

While there is no consensus about resolving the issue, with many favouring scrapping the leap second, and others preferring to adjust the astronomical time whenever needed as nobody can alter the vibrations of atoms in atomic clocks, researchers and guardians of standard time in different zones are in a fix: how to frog leap a second.

As the time is running out to fix the momentary problem, the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, the official timekeepers of the universe, has decreed that a leap second would be added to 2005. That means 2006 will be late by a second. Before you say bye-bye to this year and ring in the New Year, pause for a moment and spare a thought for the scientific brains who’ve calculated this precise moment for us.

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