The Third Leader: Changing times

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Have you got a second? Actually, it might take slightly longer, as there's a rather complicated debate taking place about whether we should continue with the leap second. You didn't know? We've been adding them since 1972 after someone noticed that the Earth was slowing down, producing a discrepancy between astronomical time and atomic time (where a second, of course, is the duration of 9,192,631,770 cycles of the frequency of radiation from cesium atoms).

Atomic clock-watching American scientists think leap seconds are a waste of time; British astronomers say without them we will fall out of kilter with the sun, and morning and noon will be at night in only a few thousand years' time.

A tricky one, even before we consider the half-millennial leap hour compromise. A growing disjunction from the rest of the universe might be quite apt, the way things are going, and it would at least make a change. There was, and may still be, an Oxford society which annually lived the day backwards, rising with port and going to bed post cornflakes; but that's Oxford, where Christ Church still runs five minutes behind GMT.

Nor would we want a repeat of the riots of September 1752, after 11 days were arbitrarily removed to bring us into line with the Gregorian calendar. And, obviously, it would never get light at all in Scotland.

Anyway, they're discussing it in Geneva at the minute. Meanwhile, I have a couple of useful facts on that related phenomenon, the leap year: a centennial year cannot be one unless it is divisible by 400; they are also said to be unlucky for broad beans.

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