Scientists prolong gloom of 2008
Eager to say goodbye to the worst economic year since the Great Depression? You'll have to wait a second.
That's because the custodians of time are preparing to tack a "leap second" onto the clock on Wednesday to account for the minute slowing of the Earth's rotation - meaning champagne toasts and Auld Lang Synes will have to come a second late.
The leap second has been used sporadically at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich since 1972, an adjustment that has kept Greenwich Mean Time the internationally agreed time standard.
Some scientists now say GMT should be replaced by International Atomic Time - computed outside Paris - because new technologies have allowed atomic time to tick away with down-to-the-nanosecond accuracy.
But opponents say atomic time's very precision poses a problem.
A strict measurement, they say, would change our very notion of time forever, as atomic clocks would one day outpace the familiar cycle of sunrise and sunset.
The time warp wouldn't be noticeable for generations, but within a millennium, noon - the hour associated with the sun's highest point in the sky - would occur around 1 o'clock. In tens of thousands of years, the sun would be days behind the human calendar.
That bothers people like Steve Allen, an analyst at the University of California at Santa Cruz's Lick Observatory.
"I think (our descendants) will curse us less if we choose to keep the clock reading near 12:00 when the sun is highest in the sky," Allen said.
Atomic time advocates argue that leap seconds are onerous because they're unpredictable.
Since the exact speed of the Earth's rotation can't be plotted out in advance, they're added as needed. Sometimes, like this year, they're added on Dec. 31, sometimes they're inserted at the end of June 30.
Those willy-nilly fixes can trip up time-sensitive software, particularly in Asia, where the extra second is added in the middle of the day.
Critics say everything from satellite navigation to power transmission and cellular communication is vulnerable to problems stemming from programs ignoring the extra second or adding it at different times.
When the extra second is added, the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, which provides the time standard for computers and appliances across the U.S., will probably be busy fixing bugs starting at 5 p.m. Mountain Time, predicted Judah Levine, a physicist at the institute's Time and Frequency Division.
"There's always somebody who doesn't get it right," Levine said. "It never fails."
Britons seemed less concerned about the remote prospect of having tea at 3 a.m. than the notion of leaving a France-based body in control of the world's time.