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Celebrating with a leap second New Year

Astronomer throws leap- second party

Posted: December 30, 2008 9:48 p.m.
Updated: December 31, 2008 4:30 a.m.

Local resident Skip Newhall has a special clock that shows 60. He's throwing a Leap Second party on New Year's Eve because atomic clocks need to be synchronized with the earth's rotation.

 

The New Year arrives early today in Valencia and will look like 58, 59, 60 on Skip Newhall's special time display.

Newhall, 70, of Valencia, is hosting a New Year's Eve Leap Second Party with about 70 friends and family members to mark the moment when the extra second, known as a leap second, is inserted into the official international time of day.

It might be just one second, but it's the International Astronomical Union's way of making sure atomic clocks remain synchronized with the earth's rotation, Newhall said.

The celebration occurs at 4 p.m. to coordinate with Greenwich, England, time.

Leap seconds are hard to predict as they depend on the earth's rotation, Newhall said.

However, official timekeepers can predict six months ahead of time whether a leap second is needed.

In that situation, the second will be inserted in either June or December, Newhall said.

In 1972, official timekeepers added two leap seconds. Another leap second came in 1998 and another in 2005, Newhall said.

Having an extra second shouldn't have an impact on people's daily lives, Newhall said.

"Microsoft says it causes a lot of problems for computers," Newhall said. "Computers don't know how to handle leap seconds."

The last time Newhall celebrated a leap second was Dec. 31, 2005, an event he marked with three atomic time displays at his home.

A display receives a signal from an exterior source that reflects astronomical time, Newhall said.

This time, Newhall, who spent 35 years as an astronomer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, neatly stacked 10 displays in his living room.

Two will show the number 60 at the fateful moment, he said.

But the concept of leap seconds might disappear one day.

The union is planning a vote by 2013 that will determine whether official timekeepers should require a leap second when needed.

Although Newhall doesn't think leap seconds will be eliminated - if the union throws out the concept of leap seconds, that means timekeepers might need to have a leap minute one day.

But for the time being, Newhall is ready to give his friends and family a historic experience.

"It's a good excuse to have a party," he said.

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