Later this month, delegations from around the world will gather in Dubai for a conference on international treaties related to radio frequencies, satellite coordination, and other technical issues. One of the topics of discussion is the challenge of keeping accurate time. Currently, there are two different methods of timekeeping: one based on Earth’s rotation and the position of the sun and stars, and the other based on atomic clocks and cesium atoms. These two methods of timekeeping often diverge, requiring the insertion of leap seconds to keep them synchronized. This has created problems for technology companies, countries, and timekeepers around the world.
Judah Levine, a leading thinker on coordinating the world’s clocks at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), has proposed a new solution called the “leap minute”. Instead of synchronizing the clocks every few years with a leap second, the leap minute would allow the atomic time to diverge from cosmos-based time for a longer period, perhaps every half-century. This would reduce the need for frequent adjustments and alleviate some of the challenges associated with leap seconds.
The introduction of atomic time in the 1970s created problems for precise timekeeping required by computers and digital technology. The leap second was introduced to reconcile the two different timekeeping methods, but it led to further complications and created a lack of uniformity among timekeeping methods used by technology companies. Patrizia Tavella, director of the Time Department at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, described the situation as a “mess”.
Dr. Levine’s proposal for the leap minute has gained support from timekeeping scientists. However, there are concerns about disconnecting official time from the traditions of astronomy and the natural world. Some opponents argue that it could lead to the pre-eminence of lab-created atomic clocks over astronomical clocks. Despite these concerns, there is a growing willingness to change the current system, as evidenced by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures declaring its readiness to explore alternatives to the leap second.
The upcoming World Radio Conference in Dubai will include discussions about the leap second. However, consensus among all attending nations, including Russia, is required for any proposed changes to be implemented. While American time scientists are not optimistic about a resolution at the conference, there is hope that a new method may be agreed upon in the next two years at other conferences that don’t require full consensus. The leap minute proposal is currently circulating as a draft paper and its formal publication is expected to follow the conference.
Judah Levine, who is leading the efforts for a solution, emphasizes the urgency of reaching a decision, as he is growing tired of dealing with the leap second and feels his own time is running out. Regardless, he acknowledges that change may not come easily due to vested interests and strong opinions.