Small Wonders: This will only take a second

You learn something new every day. Every second, in fact.

I was sitting in a meeting at work recently, in a gilded conference room high above our haze-shrouded city, surrounded by some of the most frighteningly intelligent minds in the entertainment industry: broadcast engineers.

These are the men and women who find joy in tracking and configuring satellite uplinks, manipulating the traffic of media files through vast chasms of servers and transmitters into our homes. They play chess with rocket scientists and brain surgeons. These guys invented the Internet.

And, in a rare occurrence, they said something that I almost, kind of, understood.

Time itself is about to change.

At the end of the day today, June 30, Earth, and every passenger upon it, will get one additional second of time.

That's right. Time is being adjusted.

Leap Second is here. Are you ready?

The gravitational tugging of moon and sun upon our planet not only creates totally excellent surfing conditions and opportunities to pull mollusks from temporarily empty coastal inlets. It also toys with the heavenly rotation of our little rock to the extent that the length of a day has increased roughly 2.5 milliseconds since 1820.

Introduced in 1971 by the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, leap seconds are man's attempt to reconcile astronomical time (measured by the rotation of the Earth) with physical time (measured by atomic clocks), the latter running slightly ahead of astronomically defined time. This reconciliation is done by adding one second to time whenever the pocket protector collectors at the IERRSS deem necessary — usually every couple of years.

Without the leap second, proponents argue, we would someday enjoy our nightly cocktails for breakfast.

Get it? Me either. But I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

As the megaminds in the conference room pondered how to fill that extra moment of advertiser-ready airtime and how to resynchronize every clock on every computer in a very complex chain of television broadcast systems, my simple mind became a satellite itself, wandering off in a remote orbit of thought, pondering the impact time-tinkering might have on the rest of us common folk.

Think of how many times in a day you respond to a mundane request, “Just give me one second.”

Well, you are about to get it.

It's enough time for an extra sneeze, a furtive glance or an eternity of waiting if you are one of my kids asking for a juice box, $20 or a jet pack.

“Just give me a second.”

So now that we're getting our second, what should we do with this bonus check from unseen universal timekeepers?

I say, let's not waste it balancing checkbooks, keeping up with a Kardashian or even sleeping.

“There is no neutral ground in the universe,” says C.S. Lewis. “Every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.”

Makes you appreciate the importance of the moment, doesn't it?

With my extra second I'm considering:

Taking an extra sip of a fine wine.

Gazing warmly upon the beauty of my wife.

Not yowling with frustration at my kids.

Reflecting humbly upon my shortcomings and my achievements.

Or simply offering it up to my maker in hopes he'll know what's best to do.

But if we didn't figure out this astronomical adjustment until 1971, what of time before then? How can we be sure that today truly is Saturday? Or that the year is even 2012?

It's more than my tequila-scarred brain can handle. But I can contemplate how the course of history might have been altered had this extra second been available sooner.

With one extra brush stroke, Mona Lisa's subtle smile may have become a smirk. Pontius Pilate may have had a second thought and let the other prisoner go.

A horny T-Rex couple may have gotten on the ark before they pulled up the gangway.

An alert theatergoer may have yelled, “Duck, Mr. Lincoln!”

I can't even fathom the effects this would have had on the Mayan calendar. Or maybe they knew?

Time does indeed march on. With an additional 1.7 milliseconds per century, as it turns out. But the one constant, never-changing thing we've clung to since creation is actually open for debate.

Time is relative.

I guess nothing really matters, but what we do with every second we have. Especially the extra seconds we didn't know we had.

PATRICK CANEDAY is the author of “Crooked Little Birdhouse: Random Thoughts on Being Human.” Contact him at patrickcaneday@gmail.com. Read more at www.randomthoughtsonbeinghuman.com.

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