The End of Time

Via McChris: a WSJ.com article about a US proposal to the United Nations to “simplify the world’s timekeeping by making each day last exactly 24 hours.” essentially, the US wants to eliminate “leap seconds,” which are added every few years because the earth takes slightly longer than 24 hours to fully rotate. As the article notes, adding leap seconds can often be a big hassle for computers that were not programmed to accept 61-second minutes, and because some computer programmers assert that such imprecision can be costly, the leap second may become a thing of the past.

This change would, of course, also have its costs. Sundials and sextants would no gradually lose their accuracy, although with GPS, that concern has generally been dismissed. It would also lead to teh sun rising later and later, a problem the US argues could be avoided by adding a “leap hour” every 500 years or so. Others, including the Earth Rotation Service’s leap-second chief, Daniel Gambis, of the Paris Observatory, are concerned about removing time’s representation from its ground in the earth’s rotation: “As an astronomer, I think time should follow the Earth.” His comments are echoed by astronomer Steve Allen, who comments, “Time has basically always really meant what you measure when you put a stick in the ground and look at its shadow.” Gambis’s concern also has financial implications. Re-setting telescopes to the new time would cost thousands of dollars each. And, of course, the sun would set on the role of Britain’s Royal Observatory in establishing universal time, poetntially setting off a plot that only Joseph Conrad could have imagined (thanks for the Conrad tip, McChris).

The WSJ article is right that the question is essentially a philosophical one, or perhaps more precisely, a representational one, raising questions about what, exactly, time represents, and in some sense, the removal of the leap second might seem to represent an increased abstraction of time, moving it away from the “natural” rotation of the earth. Of course, even universal time (Greenwich Mean Time, now relaced by Coordinated Universal Time, measured by atomic clocks) is a relatively recent phenomenon, as Stephen Kern explains in The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 (has anyone read Kern’s new preface?), one largely connected to increasing industrialization and faster transportation in Eurpoe and the US.

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