December 20, 2005
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The world's clocks are due to be reset on December 31st — by one whole second. That's because our planet Earth has not quite kept up the rotational pace it maintained in prior centuries. On the advice of astronomers, who use observations of stars to keep tabs on Earth's spin, the International Telecommunication Union has decided that the final minute of 2005 before the stroke of midnight at Greenwich, England, shall contain 61, rather than 60, seconds.
"People in North America who have shortwave radios and nothing better to do on New Year's Eve can actually hear this 'leap second' correction being made," says Roger Sinnott, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine. Tune in shortwave station WWV at 5 or 10 megahertz, or CHU at 7.335 megahertz, and count the 61 official seconds that will tick off the minute starting at 6:59 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (3:59 p.m. PST), which is the minute before midnight at Greenwich.
If everything goes right, personal computers, GPS receivers, and radio-controlled clocks around the world will automatically adjust themselves. But there is some question about this, because the last time a leap second was added was on December 31, 1998, before most of today's computers were manufactured.
This is the 23rd leap second to be inserted since 1972, and some communications engineers have embarked on a campaign to abolish them as a needless annoyance. That has many astronomers up in arms, for it would signal the end of our fundamentally Sun- and star-based timekeeping system.
For more about the leap-second controversy, see "Save the Leap Second" by Belgian astronomer and engineer Christian Steyaert in the December 2005 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine. For the convenience of accredited reporters, editors, and producers, we're making a free 178-kilobyte PDF of the article available below; to open it, you'll need a free copy of Adobe Reader software:
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