McGregor Says: One tiny second makes a big difference

The addition on New Year's Eve of one second to the world's atomic clock explains a lot, says our columnist, Jim McGregor

I don’t know how many of you are aware that we added a ‘leap-second’ to our atomic clock last weekend.

Specifically, in Langley, the addition occurred at 3:59:60 on Dec. 31, 2016. We were not required to turn clocks back or ahead, we didn’t have to fiddle with our computers or appliances. This second was apparently added for us.

I checked and everything seems to be OK. My microwave is still flashing 12:00, so there has been no interference in my house. Every now and then a leap second is added to Co-ordinated Universal Time (UTC) in order to synchronize clocks worldwide with the Earth’s ever slowing rotation.

Two components are used to determine UTC:

• International Atomic Time (TAI): A time scale that combines the output of some 200 highly precise atomic clocks worldwide, and provides the exact speed for our clocks to tick.

• Universal Time (UT1), also known as Astronomical Time, refers to the Earth’s rotation around its own axis, which determines the length of a day.

When the difference between UTC and UT1 approaches 0.9 seconds, a leap second is added to UTC and to clocks worldwide. By adding an additional second to the time count, our clocks are effectively stopped for that second to give Earth the opportunity to catch up with atomic time.

The reason we have to add a second now and then is that Earth’s rotation around its own axis is gradually slowing down, although very slowly. Well, doesn’t that explain a lot? Here I thought it was just me slowing down and being more fatigued but it’s the entire Earth that is moving slower.

Now I know why it seems to take me longer to get ready in the mornings, why the traffic is moving slower and why people seem to take longer to get the punch lines of my jokes. Our minds and bodies are moving slower.

Some days you feel like you are moving in mud. You keep looking at your watch and the hands don’t seem to be moving. You start to think maybe you are suffering from depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder, when now we find out that whole planet has shifted down a gear and has pulled into the intergalactic slow lane.

I used to be able to shovel my driveway in 10 minutes, now it takes all morning. I am moving so slow my whiskers seem to be popping up before the second blade gets to them and it now takes me an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes.

I used to blame the staff at Tim Hortons for their slow service, but now I realize that it is taking one second longer to brew the coffee and bake the doughnuts. The baker is not loafing, the oven is taking longer to heat up, and really, waiting one second longer for coffee is not grounds for complaint.

Why wasn’t there more publicity about this? I’m sure our politicians could have used the Earth slowing down to explain why things aren’t getting done and no doubt, oil tankers taking one second longer to cross the ocean, is the main reason oil companies are now charging $1.35 a litre for fuel.

I know a lot of you are not reading as fast as you used to, so I typed this as slow as I could. Take your time this year. At least that’s what McGregor says.