They’re on duty to uphold official US times. Sometimes, they even add an extra second to make sure the Earth catches up to our official time.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology has a Time and Frequency Division that produces the official time of the day – it “distributes” the correct time via satellite, radio signals, and telephone lines, among others.
“Sometimes on New Year’s Eve, there is a leap second – it’s an extra second we add to the time worldwide to let Earth “catch up” to our official time. We haven’t had one of those in a while, but it does make New Year’s Eve even more interesting for timekeepers like me!,” NIST researcher Andrew Novick writes.
Researchers establish the official time of the day by defining the duration of the second using primary standard clocks.
“These are cesium fountain clocks that measure the second by tuning themselves to the precise frequency of microwaves that are absorbed by cesium-133 atoms. We use the primary standard clocks to calibrate many commercially available atomic clocks,” Novick explained.
But it’s not only one clock that defines the time – researchers measure and compare all the atomic clocks and use a weighted average of them.
“The most stable clocks get the most “weight” mathematically in the average. So, if a clock starts to show drift or has other problems, it gets less weight, so it does not affect the average. The output of this time scale is Coordinated Universal Time for the United States, known as UTC(NIST),” Novick explained.
While you don’t really need precise timing to drop the ball in Times Square or pop a bottle of champagne at home on New Year’s Eve, for industries like aerospace, power grid, communication, and financial institutions, among others, precise time is crucial.
Some institutions need to know the time in microseconds (one millionth of a second) or nanoseconds (one billionth of a second). For some, just milliseconds will do.
“For time at this level, we have the Internet Time Service (ITS), where people can synchronize computers and other equipment/devices to our internet servers. This is built into most computer operating systems. Your computer accesses this information automatically, so you’ve probably used this service without even realizing it,” Novick explained.
As a time expert, he’s trying to make the most of every moment.
“As someone who thinks about time at work all day, I know there are a limited number of seconds we all get each day, so I try to maximize them. One way I try to “gain time” is by trying not to sleep too much (not something I necessarily recommend, but it works for me). The less I sleep, the more time I have available to do other things of interest.”
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