So, did you hear that the recent 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile changed the figure axis of the earth by eight centimeters, slightly increasing the speed of the earth’s rotation, making for a slightly faster orbit around the sun, which, according to a NASA geophysicist, has shortened our days by 1.26 microseconds—essentially one millionth of a second?
Seems like nothing. Adding up millionths of seconds, it would, after all, take 2,174 years for us to work up to a point at which we would have cumulatively lost one second! But it’s the very idea that the shifting of tectonic plates could change time.
The 9.1 magnitude earthquake in 2004 shortened our days by 6.8 microseconds. Would still take 403 years to lose that one second, but, you know, light in a vacuum does travel an entire mile in 5.4 microseconds. It’s not like nothing can happen in this time we’re losing. The two earthquakes together have lost us 8.06 microseconds, and that’s just two earthquakes.
Of course, as it turns out, this business of shortening our days corresponds to the lengthening of days. You’ve heard of leap years—those years with an extra day to synchronize the calendar year with the astronomical year. Ever heard of leap seconds?
Time was originally figured on the basis of the earth’s rotation around the sun in a day. Taking the regular measure of days though, it was discovered that the daily orbit of the earth around the sun could be somewhat uneven, and so, in the fullness of time, it came to pass, that time was based not on the daily orbit of the earth around the sun, but on its annual orbit. But even that resulted in some inconsistencies, and today, time is based on an atomic measure (the oscillation of a cesium atom’s microwave—in case you were interested!).
It’s all about consistency. The atomic measure is accurate to one second in 1,400,000 years. Given this level of consistency, it can be figured by how much orbital time is off . So it was that ten seconds were initially added to time in 1972, and 24 seconds have been added since then, the last leap second added to time in 2008…. The time-keepers have noted, by the way, fewer leap seconds since 1999 after the earth speeded up for some unknown reason!
Adding seconds, taking away microseconds … the gift to receive, if we’re open to it, is that time’s not as consistent as we think. Even the consistency of atomic measure simply gives us the knowledge to adapt our clocks, not to impose the “correct time” on the shifting land masses and the spinning orbiting planets. This day is, in fact, not as long as that one and is longer than the other. We know this. Built into the very physical structure of our universe is the truth we have known since childhood, that time slows down (remember math class? or maybe it was some other class for you) and time speeds up (remember summer vacation?).
The people in Chile know this. They look back on a day that will for them last forever.
And for those of us preoccupied with absolute consistency and microseconds and what we have lost, the question is still “Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care? If so, I can’t imagine why. We’ve all got time enough to cry.”
* “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” lyrics by Robert Lamm