Monday, February 27, 2012

Leap second decision put on hold

The International Telecommunication Union recently postponed a decision on whether to do away with the leap second -- which means, by default, it will remain until at least 2015.

The leap second is artificially inserted into the stream of time every now and then to account for the slowdown of the earth's rotation. Like the leap year, this system speaks to a fundamental clumsiness inherent to our system of timekeeping -- however precise it may seem on a day-to-day basis.

Felicitas Arias, director of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, is among those arguing for the abolition of the leap second, as she explains in this interview from December. But scientists could not agree at the ITU's recent summit, so the decision got put off.

"We are using a system that breaks time," Arias argues. "The quality of time is continuity." 

True, but it is hard to accept Arias' unwillingness to come up with an alternate system, instead leaving it to future generations to puzzle out. Does the insertion of a "leap second" truly interfere with the continuity of time, in any real, perceivable sense?