Why Scientists Want to Shorten the Minute to 59 Seconds

We like to say nothing is certain in life but death and taxes, but the truth is even our planet and the universe are constantly imposing changes on us.

That includes this new suggestion from scientists: We should consider shortening the minute to just 59 seconds, at least for one “negative leap second” that will better line us up with Earth’s real rotation.

This is on the heels of a year marked by many shorter-than-average days, following several years in which Earth has rotated faster than maybe ever before. What’s going on?

First, you might wonder why tiny portions of individual seconds make any real difference. The truth is they don’t for most people, or even most applications. But for some, like scientists and specially tuned scientific instruments, the differences must be accounted for. Something simple like a clock that just sets itself and “sheds” the extra or missing partial second each midnight could detract from research or regulation of important functions.

But saving up the fractions for a full “leap second” also has consequences. The New York Post reports:

Part of that is because most programming languages have very rudimentary timekeeping, and that, in turn, is based on primitive clock hardware inside the computers themselves.

For true legislation of the “real time,” computers must ping global timekeeping servers, but these serve up tiny corrections instead of entire seconds. When the computer’s clock must suddenly believe it’s 12:00:00 for a second second in a row, and data is moving through the CPU at a rate of millions or billions of bytes per second, that creates a conflict.

It’s like starting to climb to the next stair and finding you’re already at the top: you’re likely to trip a little bit.

Why does Earth spin differently to begin with? That part is both more natural and more complicated.

Earth is touched by intersecting forces from everything from the moon to the sun, and factors like the shape of the Earth itself to how tides move. (Imagine trying to move a big basin of water while it sloshes around, and you’ll understand a bit.) This complicated formula is, at least for now, tilting toward shorter days. But the overall trend in recent decades is a slower spin, meaning changing leap second policy cuts both ways: adding and subtracting a second, depending on the year.

The question of leap seconds is contentious, because some scientists believe simply adjusting each day’s microsecond difference is better. But, as with all scientifically regulated standards and measures, there’s a governing body that can help decide what to do next. In this case, time detectives will gather in 2023 to duke it out.

Until then, we’ll continue to record some of the shortest individual days on record.

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