June ends tonight with a ‘leap second’

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EVERY second counts, and tonight the world gains an extra one as a ‘leap second’ is introduced just before midnight. The briefest of pauses allows for the Earth’s gradually slowing rotation, letting atomic clocks keep in sync with the planet.

Tonight, just at the point when June becomes July, and clocks should flip from 23:59:59 to 00:00:00, instead we’ll have 23:59:60. Blink and you will miss it, but this extra second is necessary so that in 800 years’ time we don’t have lunchtime in the middle of the night. And it also has the potential to cause some digital glitches with big consequences.

When a leap second was added in 2012, several social network sites and the Mozilla browser all crashed, while the Qantas airlines check-in system in Australia failed.

Peter Whibberley, of the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) told the BBC that as leap seconds are announced six months in advance, this means computer software does not come pre-programmed to cope, and they have to be added manually. If all companies used exactly the same method to do that, there wouldn’t be a problem. But we know that’s not how the world tends to work.

“Getting leap seconds wrong can cause loss of synchronisation in communication networks, financial systems and many other applications which rely on precise timing,” he said.
“Whenever a leap second occurs, some computer systems encounter problems due to glitches in the code written to handle them. The consequences are particularly severe in the Asia-Pacific region, where leap seconds occur during normal working hours.”

For most of us though, life should continue pretty much as normal. Our computerised clocks will take care of themselves, and there’s probably not much need to wind on old school clocks and watches one second.

In the meantime, we can spend today deciding what to do with our extra second. Make the most of it!

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