It’s time for a rethink

British astronomers and historians have got the pip over a US plot to destroy Greenwich Mean Time.
They are fighting plans to abolish leap seconds introduced to keep time in line with the stars.
The world’s real-life Time Lords are meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, this week to debate the issue.
The are considering a complaint by American scientists that it is too difficult to adjust precise atomic clocks used by the internet, global positioning systems and satellite launchers.
The next leap second will be added to the pips on New Year’s Eve – and while it only gives you an extra moment to get over your hangover, experts say it is vital to compensate for a gradual slowing down in the rotation of the Earth.
They argue that without them we will eventually see the sun rise in the middle of the afternoon.
London’s historic Greenwich Observatory was built in the 17th century to keep time by the stars and help sailors find their position at sea.
Greenwich’s prime meridian dividing the eastern and western hemispheres was confirmed by an international conference in Washington in 1884.
Only Paris held out by measuring time from their own meridian but even they fell in line eventually.
Astronomers measured the rotation of the Earth by checking the precise moment individual stars passed over the prime meridian. Leap seconds are now added around every 18 months to make sure the sun continues to cross at noon. There have been 21 since 1972.
The UK’s Royal Astronomical Society are up in arms over the proposal to the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva.
Robin Scagell, of the UK’s Society for Popular Astronomy said last night: “Astronomers have been working for centuries to keep accurate time by the sun. Now this plan threatens to wreck our daily rhythm and also an historic British institution.
“It is a lot easier to make these small time adjustments than to alter the rotation of the Earth! And something like this is too important to be decided by a few people in secret in Geneva.”


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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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