Free Time


How will you spend your gift of free time on New Year's Eve? Will you catch an extra wink of sleep? Take an extra sip of champagne? Perhaps steal an extra kiss?

Thanks to the Earth's imperfect rotation, we've managed to lose a full second. International timekeepers intend to fix that on Dec. 31 by freezing time for a second at the stroke of 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds Coordinated Universal Time, which is 6:59:59 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Apparently stopping time is necessary so that the world's atomic clocks can be adjusted. Otherwise, scientists fear that these high-tech time pieces will flash "12:00" forever - and without the instruction manuals, which were misplaced years ago, no one will be able to reset them.

Under the International Systems of Units, an atomic time-scale second is defined as "equal to the duration of 9192631770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom." Okay, that's probably too much information.

But what is the best way to spend a gift of time? Over the years many serious thinkers have pondered the question, clearly fearing that atomic clocks might eventually require tweaking.

"Time is dead," observed William Faulkner, "as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life."

Apparently yielding to Faulkner's wisdom, scientists at the U.S. Naval Observatory, which is responsible for one-third of the world's atomic clocks, are planning a big party for 6:59 p.m. ET on Dec. 31. A spokesman told the Associated Press that during the festivities, "We watch the clock and make sure nothing breaks."

Breaks? Could this be another Y2K-type disaster in the making? When the calendar dealt computers the "00" digits on New Year's Day in 2000, many feared global electronic chaos. Of course, nothing really happened. But have scientists been lulled into a false sense of techno-security?

Back in 1963 Rod Serling predicted the worst in an episode of "The Twlight Zone." A fellow named Patrick McNulty got hold of a stopwatch with a button that stopped time! One day, while time was standing still and McNulty was busy robbing a bank, he dropped the watch, smashing it to bits. "He had a gift of time," concluded Serling. "He used it and he misused it, and now he's just been handed the bill." Ouch.

In 1972, the singer Jim Croce tried to save "Time in a Bottle." Unfortunately it didn't work; he died less than a year later when his chartered plane hit a pecan tree.

As noted by Will Rogers, "Half of our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we have rushed through life trying to save."

Maybe making 2008 longer isn't such a good idea. It's already one day longer thanks to the leap year, and now this. Could any more banks fail if given an extra second?

Here's a sobering thought for New Year's Eve: With the deficit currently running at about $1 trillion per year, this bonus second will cost American taxpayers $31,710.

As Groucho Marx once explained, "I've had a wonderful time, but this wasn't it."

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.

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