23 Short Films About the Leap Second

Today I was interviewed by Felicity Hickson, a student at London’s Royal College of Art, who is making a film about the leap-second that gave us all an extra second on New Year’s Eve. There have been 23 leap-seconds since 1972, and she’s searching for 23 scientists who will each use their own extra 23 seconds to explain the concept to the rest of the world. From Felicity’s own explanation:

I am a student at the Royal College of Art in London studying a MA course in communications. I specialise in fine art using film and sound as my preferred medium of working.

I am currently making a video piece about the leap second. I have got together a number of scientists that are interested in the project and I am proposing to find 23 that will be able to explain the concept of the leap second in 23 seconds.

My main aim is to communicate the concept of the leap second in the 23 seconds that have been added to atomic time since 1972-2005. The idea is to basically put these seconds to good use so that the reason they exist can be understood.

The concept of ‘23’ merges the dimensionless point of time with its scientific control. It becomes a piece about the scientific language of time and how we are able to describe its invisibility. My belief is that the art idiom sees time as a phenomenon of inaccessible measurement; time of course can never be perfectly documented in art or otherwise…. It is important to get as many people involved in this project to emphasize the importance of scientific time control, the reasons for it and its relation to the way we live.

The final work will be exhibited in the Royal College of Art Show 2006.

For those of you who can’t wait, I wasted used my 23 seconds by explaining that we have the leap-second for the same reason that we have leap-days every four years: so that the time (or time of year) you tell by looking at the sky doesn’t drift with respect to the clock or calendar (in more old-fashioned terms, so that Easter always happens in the Spring, and that noon is when the sun is overhead — at least in Greenwich). There’s a lot more to it than just this, but I couldn’t fit it into my alloted 23 seconds. We need leap-seconds to keep our clocks synchronized with the sky in the face of the long term slowdown in the earth’s rotation — days really are getting longer. Despite this, many scientists and standards-making-bodies want to abolish leap-seconds entirely, since unlike the hard and fast rules governing the leap year, their ad-hoc nature makes them impossible to account for in advance.

Of course, most of us don’t have a watch correct to within a second (their quartz crystals may be incredibly precise, but the watch will still be inaccurate unless we’ve set it correctly), but our computers should be. However, here’s some commentary on recent research on how the leap-second propagated through the internet.

Where does all this come from? Last summer, I saw a talk by Judah Levine of NIST who seems to know more than anyone else on the planet about keeping time with atomic clocks, especially important for astronomers, who need to synchronize their clocks with the position of objects in the heavens, and even more important for astronomers who observe pulsars, lighthouse-like spinning neutron stars whose pulses are reckoned to be as regular as the most precise atomic clocks on earth.

Apparently, Felicity is still looking for people to participate: drop me a line or leave a comment below and I’ll put you in touch.

One response to “23 Short Films About the Leap Second”

  1. Colin avatar

    Now that’s the best explanation of something that I never thought needed explaining I’ve ever read…thanks Drew!