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UN Debate Should We Use Earth Time Or Manmade Time

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  • uploaded: Jan 22, 2012
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BY STEVEN SPARKMAN

ANCHOR CHRISTINA HARTMAN

It's time to talk about time. This year is a leap year, with an extra day added in February. But there's also a leap second scheduled for June, and this one little second has sparked a big discussion over how humanity keeps time.

Radio Free Europe explains.

"Few people realize that every now and then the world's timekeepers insert an extra second into our lives. But today, the subject is in the news as they decide whether or not to continue the practice."

The debate over leap seconds made it all the way to a UN commission Thursday. The practice has been around since the '70s. It stems from the fact that humans use two ways of keeping time: The rotation of the Earth and atomic clocks.

Earth's rotation isn't perfectly constant, so the two gradually drift apart. That's where leap seconds come in. The BBC explains.

"Once the atomic clock time and the time based on the Earth's rotation have drifted apart by a second, we add a leap second, and that brings them back together again."

Unlike leap years, where an extra day is added every four years like clockwork, leap seconds don't happen on schedule. They're added every two or three years on average, but can sometimes be seven years apart.

The U.S. is leading the charge to abolish the leap second. The New York Times explains the American argument.

"...the sporadic adjustments, if botched or overlooked, could lead to major foul-ups if electronic systems that depend on the precise time -- including computer and cellphone networks, air traffic control and financial trading markets -- do not agree on the time."

But other countries like the UK and China want to keep the leap second, arguing there haven't been any major screw-ups during the 34 times a leap second has been added. What's more, it would overturn thousands of years of measuring time by the movements in our solar system.

Al Jazeera says that's a profound change in how we see time.

"Are we now ready to throw that principle away, and go with something that's more scientific, more precise, more technological, but which bears no obvious connection to the natural world around us?"

The difference wouldn't be noticeable at first -- a few seconds per decade, around a minute per century. But over thousands of years, 12 noon might occur at sunrise. That change in how we see time has a Scientific American writer calling the anti-leap second crowd "knuckleheads."

"It sounds like nothing, but in a world where we're constantly encouraged to interact through screens and speakers, where we exist in climate controlled environments ... anything that reminds us there's a real world out there is a positive."

The delegates couldn't reach an agreement Thursday, so they postponed a decision until 2015. They're apparently taking their time.

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