Every second will count in fight over future of time

British scientists and historians have united against an American proposal to change the way time is tied to the daily rotation of the Earth on its axis.

They believe that a plan to abolish the "leap" second ­ an extra second added to the midnight pips at new year ­ would in effect move the position of the Greenwich meridian eastwards.

The proposal from American time specialists is being debated today at a meeting of the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva and a decision is expected tomorrow.

It is believed that they want to scrap the leap second because of the technical problems it can cause when altering some atomic clocks.

However, Kristen Lippincott, deputy director of the National Maritime Museum in London, said that there were many disadvantages of abolishing the leap second. "If you get rid of the leap second you are destroying the notion of what time is," Dr Lippincott said.

"For the first time in history you will separate the timekeeping mechanism from the rotation of the Earth and the movement of the Sun and the stars. One practical effect is that the lines of longitude will slip gradually eastwards. I'm sure they are proposing this for the best interests but there is no reason for it," she said.

The rotation of the Earth has been used as the basis for timekeeping since the dawn of history, but the planet does not always complete a full rotation in exactly 24 hours, because it spins slightly slower every year.

To counteract this effect, and to keep time in synchrony with the Earth's daily cycle of night and day, timekeepers have sometimes added a "leap" second at the end of the pips, usually at new year but sometimes in June, or exceptionally in March or September.

Leap seconds are not added every year, and their appearance is judged necessary only after careful calculations about the speed at which the Earth's rotation has slowed down since the last leap second.

The International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, an international body based at the Paris Observatory, has decided that an extra second will be added to the pips this new year.

Before the age of atomic clocks, leap seconds were not needed because clocks could be adjusted whenever it was thought necessary to do so.

But because atomic clocks are so accurate, leap seconds are needed to keep them tuned to the not-so-accurate clock of the Earth's daily rotation.

Jonathan Betts, curator of horology at the Royal Observatory, said that if leap seconds were abolished it would eventually mean that time would bear little relevance to whether it was day or night.

"For me it would be a problem if the Sun were to rise at 4pm or at a different time like noon or midnight," Dr Betts said. "I don't support the idea of the American delegation because I think all our human activities are linked to the rotation of the Earth first," he said.

A spokeswoman for the National Physical Laboratory, Britain's official timekeeper, said the proposal will be fought. "The UK is opposed to the proposal, and other countries have raised concerns over specific details," she said.

* The woman who presided as the voice of the speaking clock for 22 years has died. Pat Simmons, who was the voice of the service between 1963 and 1985, died in London, last week, aged 85. Originally from the East End, she was working at the London telephone exchange in 1963 when she won a competition to deliver the time and became a familiar voice before retiring in 1985.

A brief look at the history of time

* The "mean" in Greenwich Mean Time is derived from the need to average out the length of the solar day, which varies throughout the year

* John Flamstead, a former astronomer royal, calculated the rotation of the earth in the 17th century using the first accurate clocks

* Greenwich was chosen as the prime meridian in 1884 at a conference in Washington of 25 nations

* The first atomic clock was used to measure time in 1955

* Since 1972, Universal Time and International Atomic Time have been kept in synchrony by the addition of occasional "leap" seconds

* When a leap second is inserted it is done after the last second of either December or June, or exceptionally in March or September

* All leap seconds so far have been positive, meaning that they have been added to time. It is possible to take seconds away, should the earth's rotation begin to speed up

* There have been 22 leap seconds since 1972, the last one being in 1999.

* Traditional navigation, using the moon and stars, is one application that uses time to an accuracy of a few seconds

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
News
i100
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage: 'I don't know anybody in politics as poor as we are'
i100
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015