Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Perfect Watch is always Fast

Let's say that you bought a perfect watch on January 1, 1972. By perfect, we mean that each and every second measured by this hypothetical watch is exactly equal to a SI second - defined in 1967 as "the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom". Let's say also that, comforted by this extreme accuracy, you've never adjusted the watch or had to change to battery or wind it up or whatever. After all it is a perfect watch, right?
Sorry to tell you that your watch is now 24 seconds fast. Yep. You see, measuring the passage of time is not quite the same as telling the time. Time itself is but a concept, a human observation of change if you will. On the other hand, "the time" [of day] is our expression of an agreed instant in the passage of time. In fact, the time of day, or the definition thereof, has been messed around with ever since the first non-sundial clock was invented.
You would think that the invention of atomic clocks would clear everything up. After all, atomic clocks are almost as good as the perfect watch that you bought back in 1972. Unfortunately, we still have the same problem in modern times that the ancients had. Days are still varying in length - not just the period of daylight versus night, but also the actual length of each day varies during the year. Not to mention that the wobble of our planet (about once every 26,000 years) causes a change in the length of each year and that the planet itself is slowing down due to tidal friction.
Before the second was re-defined in 1967, it was defined with respect to the mean solar day and thus measured the passage of ephemeris time. However, the first atomics clocks proved that even ephemeris time was not perfectly constant so, up until 1967, they were actually adjusted to keep ephemeris time, known quaintly as "ET".
These days we still match "the time" to our planetary motion but now it is done by adding leap-seconds when required by our slowing planet. It is only by adjusting atomic time with leap-seconds do we arrive at the familiar UTC which is now truly "the time", as far as everyone on the planet is concerned. In 1972, when UTC was invented, it was already slow to the atomic clock by 10 seconds and since then 24 leap-seconds have been added - which is why your perfect watch is now 24 seconds fast!

Best regards, xpatUSA