Sunday, December 28, 2008

2008: Longest Year Ever?

Even though Wall Street and other insiders of the world’s financial centers touted 2008 as the worst year ever for the global economy, does it have to last one second more?

By: Vanessa Uy

Most of us knew even before 2008 began that it will be a leap year – i.e. that 29th of February that comes along when a year meets the criteria for being a leap year. And yet the “timekeeping scientists” at the US Naval Observatory - the secret location of outgoing US Vice President Dick Cheney’s 600 megaton blast resistant rated bunker - recently found out through their ultra-precise atomic clocks that we need to add a “leap second” to 2008. In order to keep our trusty Gregorian Calendar accurate for the foreseeable future perhaps? Which in my opinion is a better option than a 30th of February when the year 3000 comes along. But why the need to add a leap second in the first place?

Even though our planet Earth passes muster when it comes to the hydrostatic equilibrium criterion of the International Astronomical Union or IAU in defining it as a bona fide planet. Our planet’s large bodies of water and the Moon’s rotational coupling has been affecting our planet’s speed of rotation – i.e. it’s been gradually slowing down over billions of years. When it comes to the accuracy of the Earth’s rotation, it won’t even pass muster compared to the up-to-the-second accuracy needed in the day-to-day operations of a contemporary US Navy aircraft carrier.

The decision to add an extra second to the year 2008 was made by an international consortium of timekeepers when their US arm announced it back in December 8, 2008. The industrially advanced West began adding leap seconds in 1972. Probably when Atomic Frequency Standards scientists found out that since they began using and building ever more accurate atomic clocks since the end of World War II adding leap seconds is a necessity to keep our current Gregorian Calendar accurate for a few thousand years more. The international consortium of timekeepers sometimes adds a leap second twice a year since they started the practice in 1972. Our 2008 leap second is the first one since December 31, 2005.

Given that our modern post-WW II civilization is now under the hegemony of atomic time, everything from telecommunications systems, computer operating systems, even our global financial system must keep up with the almost Planck-time precision of atomic clocks. Even though complex trading instruments bereft of regulation and oversight became its downfall, without ultra-accurate atomic clocks, the stock markets would really crash and the Internet will shut down. Because of this, most cellular phone providers and computer operating systems check with the world’s atomic clocks and automatically update their time to add a leap second when the need arises. Because of atomic time, the term “rat race” suddenly acquires a more precise redefinition. Just be careful not to wind up as road-kill in the Information Superhighway.