Thursday, January 19, 2012

The "Leap Second" and the Flatness of Modern Time

Today's New York Times reports on a contentious issue looming at a UN-related agency known as the International Telecommunication Union: should the world do away with the "leap second?"

The leap second is an additional second that the keepers of the atomic clocks have added every few years since 1972 to keep those extremely precise clocks in line with the earth's rotation "which [as the Times reports], sadly, does not  run quite like clockwork."

Who knew that such an obscure practice of timekeeping could be divisive?

It turns out that U.S. experts are worried that inserting an occasional extra second could mess up global computer networks. Even that one second could crash servers around the world, and computers don't like such randomness. Therefore, the U.S. wants to stop adding the leap second.

But their opponents--including China, the U.K., and Canada--worry that abolishing the leap second would create a divergence. By the year 2112, they contend, there would be a full minute gap between the official, atomic clock and the earth's rotational one. And eventually, after 100,000-plus years, the official atomic noon would occur at sunrise. Sounds like a crisis, eh? It's keeping me up at night!

On a more serious note, the whole debate illustrates how the world has become flattened and globalized through increasingly precise measurement, standardization, and networking. As chapter 1 of my book points out (and as the Times story reports), this movement to standardize time took off in the late nineteenth century, with the advent of railroads. The effort culminated in the global system of time zones that still governs us today. And the current system goes a step further, down to worrying about the effects over millennia of adding a second of time every few years.

I probably won't be watching on June 30 of this year when the atomic clock gains a second. But I'll continue to be amazed at how humans have taken time--a precious gift of God, a mystery of fullness--and flattened it into an object that they can precisely measure and seemingly control at will.

Despite our brilliant ability to fathom the complexities of earthly, chronological time, we need to grasp the fullness of kairos time if we are to live peaceably during our days and years on earth.

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