Time stands still for no man.

Unless, of course, the man in question in Daniel Gambis. Daniel has the power to stand time on its head, so to speak. He has the ability to do what no other can. He can make time.

His power is somewhat limited, though. Daniel is the head of the Earth Orientation Center, a department of the International Earth Rotation and Reference System (IERS) in Paris, France. From his office came forth the commandment to add a second to the atomicclock. (Apparently, it wasn’t necessary for anyone to second the motion.)

In case you missed it (you might have blinked), we just experienced a leap second. Don’t feel too busy, because now you have more time on your hands, thanks to Daniel, who was simply responding to the earth’s will. At 7 p.m., New Year’s Eve, 2008, a second was added to the atomic clock. This leap second put things right between our clock and the earth’s time (making 2008 the longest year in a decade thanks to the leap day in February).

Several reasons are given for the earth’s slowdown (and the economy is not one of them). One theory is that due to the influence of the moon, which causes a braking action on the earth’s rotation, our clocks would get behind if we didn’t periodically add a second. Another hypothesis says that friction is to blame; orbital debris slows things down. Don’t forget the tides, which also have been blamed for the delay. These factors are way more powerful than Daniel Gambis, since they can slow the earth down two milliseconds per century.

This leap second is not the first or the last. Since 1972, there have been 24 leap seconds, but this is the first in at least three years. We don’t yet know when the next one will be, since that is up to Daniel and his crew of second-counting staff. We do know that leap seconds only happen in June or December and we will be notified by the IERS. They send out a ‘Bulletin C Message’ to let us know. This may sound like gibberish, but it is just leap second-speak.

We are not the only culture that struggled to keep up. Ancient Egyptians added a day every four years — which seems as if it would eventually put them ahead ofthemselves. This is nothing compared to the eleven days by whichAmericans shifted their calendar in 1752, when we switched from the Gregorian calendar to the Julian calendar.

Of course all of this talk of time raises the question, which clock are we talkingabout? That is easy, since thereis worldwide agreement tosynchronize timepieces tothe atomicclock. This official clock was developed in 1949 in theU.S. It is an 800-pound clock measuring unimaginably small ‘ticks and tocks.’ One second equals 9,192631,770 cycles (ticks and tocks) of microwave energy emitted or absorbed by the element cesium 133 under controlledconditions. Precise is the operative word when one talks of time and the atomic clock.

When speaking of time, there isn’t a second to waste. So even if there waere a more timely matter to discuss this week, I am still stuck on that extra second. Those other items will have to wait since I am simply out of time.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.