Media coverage

From: Rob Seaman <>
Date: Wed, 14 Jan 2004 13:51:06 -0700 (MST)

I'm finally getting caught up on a backlog of email stretching back
before the holidays.

Markus Kuhn says:

> The world can't be too troubled if even the absence of a leap second
> makes it as a news item,

The world is deeply troubled, of course. The fact that the media has
picked up on this story doesn't reflect a lack of more pressing topics,
but rather the vast appetite of our species for information both useful,
and less so. Better that they should be talking about some obscure
technical issue than the latest Hollywood scandal.

> Full list of media coverage so far at the bottom of

The first "media" article was indeed in Nature, but Nature's editors
picked up the story from the Newsletter of the American Astronomical

    "A Problem with the Proposed Change in Coordinated Universal Time"
        Rob Seaman & Steve Allen

There was also a later article in Physics Today:

    "Leap Second Debate Heats Up", Physics Today, v56, Oct 2003
        Toni Feder

The one thing all this media coverage shares is a naive understanding of
the issues involved. Quotes are taken out of context and physical effects
are confused - sometimes to the point of stating the exact opposite of
what is true. One might hope, however, that the professional debate over
the issues would reflect a more thoughtful and unhurried response.

I'm delighted to see some of the more subtle financial and legal civil
time issues receive attention. Is it too much to think that a full
explication of such "non-technical" dependencies should be accomplished
before we change a fundamental international standard? I look forward
to reading an officially blessed white paper discussing the pros and
cons of precision time policy as it relates to - for instance -
financial markets worldwide.

The process followed in implementing changes to the UTC standard is
as important as the proposed changes. Here is a gedanken experiment.
Imagine that instead of discussing a change to the international civil
time standard, that we were discussing a change to the international
weight or volume standard. Imagine how massive an international
debate would arise.

Civil time is an expression of time of day, whether mean or apparent,
standard or local or daylight saving. What is being proposed is not
simply a dry academic tweek to some highly technical mechanism. What
is being proposed is that time of day no longer matters to the species.

Perhaps that is true - if so, would it be too much to request that the
precision timing community dedicate a few resources toward demonstrating
that assertion on paper before requiring the entire world to demonstrate
it in the financial markets and courtrooms and telescopes and air traffic
control towers and nuclear facilities and...

For example, I'm willing to be convinced that the air traffic control
system is susceptible to leap second related failures. Can't these
failure modes be analyzed in advance? Are the risks greater if a
change is made - or if no change is made? What are the details of
the policy change that would best mitigate the risks? And what
implementation schedule is most prudent? Do those details and that
schedule also address the needs of other industries and of the
financial markets? Are there resources available to accomplish
the policy changes promptly? What are the repercussions under
international law? Do all countries have to implement the new
standard before it can be enforced?

Isn't it reasonable to expect that folks hankering after the retirement
of leap seconds would undertake such proactive research gladly? There's
material here for grant proposals for the remainder of our professional

Rob Seaman
National Optical Astronomy Observatory.
Received on Wed Jan 14 2004 - 12:51:42 PST

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