Does the leap second matter?

Scott Huler has a great take on the leap second debate:

If you decide to leave the leap seconds out, the atomic clocks and the universe itself begin sailing on different paths. In a year or two your atomic wall clock and your radio station will disagree, and in a few thousand years they’ll be completely catywampus. It sounds like nothing, but in a world where we’re constantly encouraged to interact through screens and speakers, where we exist in climate controlled environments whose very existence is systematically dismantling the actual climate, anything that reminds us there’s a real world out there is a positive…

Divorcing superaccurate timekeeping from the universe it’s meant to describe solves no problem and exacerbates a profound one. Don’t do it.

Huler and I spoke about this at ScienceOnline 2012, and I think he’s right. Here on Earth, time plays a very specific role—to help us know where the Earth is in both its rotation and orbit. It also has very important cultural meanings—think high noon, midnight, and so on. It just so happens that it’s also useful in synchronizing things like computers, phones, satellites, and telescopes.

But there’s also another argument against abandoning the leap second, one to which Huler alludes in the first paragraph I quoted: The leap second debate is really an argument over scale. Certain people don’t want to deal with the issue in the near term and would rather push it off to some unspecified point in the future. It’s human nature to procrastinate—homework, chores, climate change—but inaction doesn’t solve the problem. Eventually, we’ll have to add a leap minute or a leap hour. When that happens, I’m guessing our descendants will wish we had just stuck with the leap second.

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