The Brakewater of Time

Sometimes water has too much braking power. That's why we don’t need a breakwater. See? Navel gazing can be a satisfying pastime, but when seconds count, I like to focus my gaze on the U.S. Naval Observatory instead. This will be especially important as the wee hours of Wednesday give way to Thursday, because that's when an extra second will be shoveled into the Furnace of Time, thereby providing just enough thrust to keep our planet from grinding to a halt before breakfast.

Although the International Earth Rotation Service is ultimately responsible for deciding whether or not to throw another second into the fire, it's Father Time who has to do the actual work. He lives on a small boat at the U.S. Naval Observatory, so that's where the sacrifice is performed. This way, he can paddle out onto the ocean at a moment's notice and tell Poseidon to quit slamming on the brakes, since that's what's slowing us down in the first place.

The Earth is constantly undergoing a deceleration caused by the braking action of the tides. Through the use of ancient observations of eclipses, it is possible to determine the average deceleration of the Earth to be roughly 1.4 milliseconds per day per century. This deceleration causes the Earth's rotational time to slow with respect to the atomic clock time.

The sacrifice will commence just before midnight (UTC) on New Year's Eve, and should be all but over by the time 2009 rolls around, give or take a couple seconds. If you happen to be watching, you'll see that the leap second is glued to the end of the last second of the old year, which isn't at all the same as grafting it to the first second of the new year.


Here, I'm reminded of the words of my great-uncle's niece, on my mother's side, who always seemed to have a way of making a long story short . . .

He who leaps first leaps loudest, but second fiddle can't hold a candle to Father Time.

. . . which, I think, simply means that Poseidon is a lousy driver.



  1. Anonymous9:32 PM UTC

    Ha! The second I heard about the leap second, I thought, "This is a subject for Omegaword!" And here it is! Drat -- If only I had put my prediction in the mail to you, postmarked yesterday!

  2. It's okay. I had a premonition that you would predict it, which is why I decided to prepublish your prediction. What is time, really?

  3. Do i really have to reset all my clocks ahead one second ?

  4. Only one. The others will be too envious to stay behind for long.

  5. which brings us to the psychic leap second:

    the second added before it ever wasn't there.

    which reminds me of that great Steven Wright line about his psychic girlfriend who broke up with him three months before they ever met.

    of course, from an earth-centric point of view, the rotation stays the same, the tides move and pull and fold as they ever did. time itself is speeds. eventually it will lap itself, in which case it will end before it ever started which resolves the issue right there...

    And now that I've learned all about the leap second, I'm going to add the tiniest sliver of an extra thing to my list of microchores to accomplish before the year is out.

  6. With a bit of luck, the answers to these and other dilemmas (e.g. lemmings diving, sideways, into infinity) will come to me in a dream, which I will then be forced to recount here. Unless time chooses this very night to fold back into itself, that is. On the other hand, who's to say it doesn't already do that on a daily/nightly basis -- we're halfway through lap 774920264007361 x 10^7071067 already -- and the whole thing never really started in the first place because it's all just a filmstrip in the projector of ... well, you know.

  7. When I see people standing with the sign, "The End is Near," I always ask them, "Near where?" I want to make sure not to go there.

  8. Anonymous6:29 PM UTC

    Gary, the end isn't so much "near" as "nigh."

    "It seems that the end is nigh. But what end is nigh, and how nigh exactly?" —Marcel L. J. Wissenburg, Liberal Democracy and Environmentalism, 2004