Two things in life are in short supply — time and money. No one is walking around handing out dollar bills, but somehow we are all getting one free second today. It’s being called a leap second, and some people think it’s going to ruin everything.
In a move that inspires as many philosophical debates about the meaning of time as it does fear that the apocalypse is nigh, the Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC, is adding a leap second to the end of today.
Between 12 a.m. on one day and 12 a.m. the next, 86,400 seconds tick by — but not really. Technically, it’s 86,400.02 seconds, a discrepancy caused by how the oceans respond to the gravitational forces of the Earth, sun, and moon, which are always competing enough to make the Earth’s rotation slow down.
According to NBC News, this addition makes up for all the little milliseconds that we’ve ignored for a couple years, but which have added up since the last one in 2012.
This works just like the leap year, which keeps the calendar in tune with the Earth’s revolution around the sun, National Geographic added. The super-accurate atomic clock has made it necessary to fine-tune even further.
So, when we hit 11:59:59 today, the clock will literally stop as it tries to catch up with the Earth. This may seem like a whole lot of fuss for nothing, but Smithsonian geographer Andrew Johnston said “synchronizing the planet is important for things that we take for granted, like navigation and email.”
And back in the old days, such a discrepancy wouldn’t have mattered to anyone. But the modern world is chock full of devices and systems — from your iPhone to the slightly more important air traffic control system — that need accurate time to function, said engineer and clock maker Tom Van Baak.
And the little adjustment today meant to keep them all working perfectly tomorrow could create a healthy dose of mayhem. The last leap second grounded Amazon, Mozilla, Gawker, and Reddit.
Judah Levine, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology — the country’s timekeepers — isn’t looking forward to it. His job is to make sure the leap second goes off without a hitch today — NIST’s clock will hit 11:59:59 twice. Before and after that point, “there’s a full panic mode.” Levine will have to spend tomorrow morning sifting through frantic emails.
But the fact remains, we have some free milliseconds on our hands and we can do whatever we want with them. John Oliver has provided a couple options so that you can make sure it isn’t wasted — head on over to spendyourleapsecondhere.com.
[Photo Courtesy Jessica Hromas / Getty Images]