Should Mitt Romney release his tax returns? Is Newt Gingrich a swinger? Is North Korea’s Kim Jong un a twit or a tyrant?
How many DUIs is too many? Eight? A dozen? Should Montana’s former commissioner of political practices have played solitaire on his work computer? Is the new federal courthouse in Billings an eyesore?
Do we have the slightest reason to believe ExxonMobil’s latest estimate of the amount of oil it spilled in the Yellowstone River?
Should the Italian cruise captain have gone down with the ship?
These are the kinds of questions that trouble the minds of those of us who regularly follow the news. It can be overwhelming to be expected to have an opinion on a hundred different issues, to evaluate the attributes of politicians, quarterbacks and movie stars, to hand down judgments a dozen times a day.
That’s why I am pleased when a genuinely complex news story comes along, something so far beyond my ken that I cannot even pretend to have an opinion on it.
Have you got a sec?
I am thinking specifically of news accounts of the meeting last week in Geneva of the International Telecommunications Union, which, after days of heated debate, voted to postpone for at least three years a decision on whether to eliminate leap seconds.
A brief account of the Geneva confabulation in the New York Times actually contained a sentence that began, “Opponents of leap seconds, led by the United States ...”
I knew that this was going to be a story I couldn’t possibly understand completely, and that when I was done reading it I would still be unable to say whether I was an opponent or an advocate of leap seconds.
Blessed perplexity, in other words.
Most of us live in a world where our watches, our wall clocks, our cell phones and the clocks on our computer screens are often at odds with one another by as much as several minutes.
The International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service in Paris — described in another story on the meeting as “the grand arbiter of time” — is a bit more persnickety than most of us. Because clock time is now based on the Earth’s rotation around the sun, and because that rotation is subject to slight, irregular variations, the Parisian service occasionally adds a leap second to Coordinated Universal Time.
In fact, it recently decided to add a leap second in this leap year. The extra second is scheduled to be introduced on June 30.
Off the clock
But if the International Telecommunications Union decides in three years to permanently eliminate the leap second, what we call time will longer be tethered to the motions of the Earth and sun.
Instead, a second would be tied to an unchanging measure — the oscillation frequency of an isotope of cesium. As you no doubt recall from high school, that oscillation frequency is exactly 9,192,631,770 per second.
Those leap second opponents say that adding a second to the world’s atomic clocks could create huge problems for computer networks, and that an unvarying timekeeping system would make it possible to more precisely synchronize radio communications and GPS systems.
Proponents of leap seconds say that without them, the rotation of the Earth will eventually make a hash of our notions of time. As put so succinctly in an editorial in the Irish Times, “in hundreds of years we’ll be a minute out of sync with the sun, and after several hundred thousand years we could be eating lunch in the middle of the night.”
I am a traditionalist, so the notion of lunch in the middle of the night is very troubling. On the other hand, Canada and England, our traditional allies, want to retain the leap second, while the United States and France are the leading the charge for leap second abolition.
Shouldn’t we stick with our friends? And why are the arbiters of time stationed in France anyway? Is cesium oscillation even legal in all 50 states? What happens to breakfast-and-lunch-only joints? Will they have to stay open all night? What exactly do I think?
I think Mitt should release his tax returns.
Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick@
billingsgazette.com or 657-1293.