Long before the world of servility, time was found in the calibration of an individual or in the movement of the planets. Now, however, in a schedule obsessed society bound by clocks, comes the leap second.
With the precise atomic clock came the discovery that the Earth’s rotation was slowing down. Meanwhile, time wasn’t, and if this widening gap was left unchecked, we would soon all be enjoying the sunset at midnight.
Thus the leap second was born, an added second which performs a similar function to the leap year in that it keeps the calendar in sync with the seasons. All the days align nicely, and a sense of certainty prevails throughout the urban cosmos.
However, while the leap second ostensibly keeps all in good order, it also upsets the world wide web, satellite navigation, banking computer networks and international air traffic systems, which rely dutifully on the keeping of time.
There have recently been vehement calls to abandon the leap second, as the margin for error in making thousands of changes to such systems is slim. Nevertheless, the UN International Telecommunications Union failed to reach a consensus on the matter.
The decision to introduce the contentious leap second was made in 1972 by the Paris-based International Rotation Service. Ever since, scientists have decided to slip one in the societal cracks whenever the gap between solar and atomic time amounts to a second.
The most recent of these brief, disruptive bursts of civil tampering occurred in 1998, 2005 and 2008, with their appearance being somewhat irregular. In 100 years time, it is predicted scientists will need to insert up to two leap seconds each year to keep the light in good order.
At present, the leap second is not considered pesky enough to abolish, as one was added just last Sunday. And thank goodness for that, as if we keep paying homage to the atomic clock without its aid, pretty soon we’ll all be eating cereal in the dark.
Although maybe it’s time we stopped worshiping the clock, as cultures around the world indicate the absurdity of such a practice. The South African San Hunters say they can’t schedule when to hunt, instead they “wait for the moment to be lucky”.
Similarly, the Sami people in Norway (and many other cultures) let their children master their own time, as they believe it produces independence and makes them less susceptible to peer pressure.
In England, last Sunday’s event was celebrated with an extra second in bed.