WAIT A SECOND
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, the time being 1972, a time before computers ran the world. That’s when it was decided that a way must be invented to keep precision atomic clocks in sync with the Earth’s messy natural rotation.
Behold the creation of the leap second. We had one of them last Tuesday. Carl Engelking explains at D-brief: “Come midnight Coordinated Universal Time June 30, the official time will read 23:59:60 rather than resetting to 00:00:00.”
The latest atomic clock measures the frequency of a particular transition in the cesium atom. That amounts to 9,192,631,770 vibrations per second, which defines the second, the international (SI) unit of time. This clock will keep perfect time, neither gaining nor losing a second, for 300 million years, Ars Technica’s Megan Geuss explained when the clock was unveiled last year.
For reasons not completely understood yet, but which have to do with competing gravitational pulls of the Earth, the moon, and the sun, Earth’s rotation is slowing down a teeny bit. But the rate of slowdown is unpredictable. We think of a single rotation as a day, 24 hours, 86,400 seconds. Because of the slowdown, though, the actual average length of a day is roughly 86,400.002 seconds, according to Laura Geggel at Live Science.
So at irregular intervals, time as measured by the Earth’s infinitesimally slower spin must be synchronized with time as measured by that ever-so-precise atomic clock. In 1972, they started adding a second every now and then–a leap second–to even things out.
Leap seconds have been inserted into our timekeeping 25 times, at first nearly annually. But, also for reasons not completely understood yet, it’s happened much less frequently since 1999. Only 4 times, says Amanda Montañez at Scientific American.
However, those recent leap second insertions have messed things up. Last time, in 2012, “reddit crashed, Gawker went down, lots of Linux servers fell over, and Australian airline Qantas had some computer problems that caused up to 50 delayed flights. While it was sometimes a case of computer admins being caught with their pants down (i.e., old systems and packages that haven’t been updated), it was also just the result of not enough corner case testing,” says Sebastian Anthony at Ars Technica.
This time, Wired’s Cade Metz was worried that it might derange the financial industry’s computers, already coping with the Greek crisis. But according to Stephanie Yang at the Wall Street Journal’s MoneyBeat, there were hiccups but no chaos.
Metz wants to get rid of the leap second, pointing out that its absence wouldn’t seriously revise the human sense of time for centuries. 700 years from now, when the clock says 11:30 although it’s “really” midnight, world time could be adjusted by half an hour in one lump. We do something like that twice a year for Daylight Saving Time anyway.
In November, the International Telecommunications Union will meet to discuss the leap second–again. They’ve already done so a number of times and always voted to keep it. Will this time be different?
And while we’re at it, we should get rid of Daylight Saving Time too. Among other reasons, it deranges our metabolisms, a form of jet lag we impose on ourselves twice yearly. To no purpose at all, and to the detriment of health. I have ranted on this topic several times here at On Science Blogs, for example here, so will not repeat myself this time.
Gina Kolata, New York Times science journalist, is a controversial topic among her peers, although some think she has no peers. According to Larry Husten, another top science journalist, who specializes in matters cardiovascular, Kolata is “the most extravagantly talented and gifted health and science reporter working today.”
At Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast, Malcolm Campbell called her recent article on stents his Read of the Week. The stents piece was part of a four-part Kolata series, “Mending Hearts,” on new developments in cardio medicine, and you’ll be wanting to bet that the series will will win prizes and praises.
Health News Review tackled one of the pieces in the series, this one on transcatheter aortic valve replacement, calling it a compelling tale but saying it needed more detail. For instance, some focus on less-than-successful cases in addition to heartwarming tales such as Henry Kissinger’s.
At The Pump Handle, Liz Borkowski liked Kolata’s piece on how hospitals have cut time-to-treatment dramatically, part of the reason the death rate from coronary heart disease has dropped 38% in the last decade. Husten liked it too but was irritated that Kolata failed to mention a big reason for the other 62%–patients’ delay in calling 911 or otherwise being poky about getting themselves to the emergency room.
And he is outright angry at the stents piece, which says that a 2007 big clinical trial that was negative about stents didn’t change medical practice. Husten quotes the trial’s PI as saying it reduced the volume of stent use between 20-25%. Husten says, “the trial ended an era of stent mania, and initiated in its place a medical culture much more likely to question unbridled enthusiasm for new drugs or devices.”
Husten has other complaints too. He concludes that the series is “good, really good. But it could be better.”
SHORT SHRIFT TODAY