Got a second? Everybody gets one more on Saturday

The adjustment, made at the Naval Observatory, adds just a bit of time.
Friday, December 30, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:58 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

“5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... and 1 again! Happy New Year!”

That countdown will be no mistake this New Year’s Eve when the U.S. Naval Observatory adds a leap second to 2005. It will be the 23rd time since 1972 that science has tinkered with time to keep it accurate.

The occasional adjustments are necessary to synchronize the world’s master clock with the slowing rotation of the Earth.

The Naval Observatory is the keeper of the master clock for the United States. At 5:59:59 p.m. Central Standard Time on Saturday, the observatory will add a second to the U.S. clock, which is a group of more than 70 clocks kept in environmentally controlled vaults in Washington, D.C.

If the leap seconds were not added, the time difference would add up.

“If we didn’t add on the seconds, someone, over time, would look at their watch and see noon, and then look at the sun and see 11 a.m.” observatory spokesman Geoff Chester said.

Chester explained that a failure to make the minor adjustments could have a radical impact. Ships over time could be thrown off by hundreds of miles as navigation methods fail. The timing of radio signals could be compromised, making it difficult for folks to tune into to their favorite programs.

Those who own cellular phones with automatic time update can detect the leap second if they use a stopwatch to time how long it takes their phone to move from 5:59 to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

At the observatory, clocks will behave differently depending on their model. Some will freeze for the extra second, while others will record it.

Chester said people watching or attending the traditional Times Square ball drop in New York City need not fret about the drop’s accuracy.

“They get their time from a GPS clock,” he said, “so they should be right on schedule.”

One might think the wrinkle in time would be a nightmare for Bob King, owner of Pendulum Bob’s Clock Shop off West Ash Street. But King, surrounded by ticking clocks, swaying pendulums and striking bells in the back room of his shop, isn’t worried. In fact, he’s looking forward to some relaxation.

“By science we’ve been given this extra second of time, and philosophically we should make the most of it,” King said.

“I plan on sleeping.”

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