Ever since I found out that 2016 would include an extra second—as announced on July 6 by the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service—I’ve been planning what to do with all the extra time I’ve now got on my hands.
Since 1972, “ leap seconds ” have been added to certain years so that our calendar doesn’t overtake the earth’s rotation, which is infinitesimally decelerating over time.
This geriatric slowing of our struggling planet seems like a bad sign, and adding a second here or there in order to prolong certain years—which consequently will match the frailer, more deliberate churn of our globe—feels a little like putting risers beneath your couch because your house is sinking, or busting open the odometer to turn it back a few thousand miles because your car is beginning to break down, or something, but in this case, there’s not much we can do to address the problem itself and the next best thing is just to acknowledge it.
The leap second will take place on the night of Dec. 31—instead of transitioning directly from 11:59:59 p.m. to 12:00:00 a.m., an extra second (titled 11:59:60) will wedge itself between us and the New Year.
Why should it occupy this particular spot? No rationale has been given, and to me it feels like a purposely terrible choice: add an extra second to any other evening and no one will notice, but there is precisely one night every year when people are literally counting down the seconds as they await the following day, and that night is New Year’s Eve.
Now we all have to remember to start our midnight countdowns not at 11:59:50 but at 11:59:51, and we have to wait a whole extra second before we can blow our novelty horns and kiss our partners.
Well, that’s one way of looking at it—we can choose to be frustrated by the delay, like those of us who, caught in a traffic jam, tend to fume and honk and shout instead of employing the blank stretch of time to some useful mental purpose—or we can receive the leap second as a gift, an extra moment in our lives to do with as we please. Of course, our lifespans will not actually be increased—I’ll live the same number of seconds in my lifetime regardless of these calendrical adjustments. By adding an extra second in 2016, I’m actually losing a second in the year of my death; I won’t make it quite as far as I otherwise would in, say, the year 2085. But as the precociously wise boys of One Direction once instructed us, we’d do best to “live while we’re young.”
If you had one extra second to spend this year (which you do), what would you do with it? What if an extra second was all you needed finally to finish that novel, achieve the perfectly sculpted body of your dreams, or find the courage to reconnect with your estranged granddaughter?
I’ve already spent multiple seconds—minutes even—contemplating what I’m going to do with my leap second (time that I otherwise would have spent thinking about something else), so in a sense my leap second has already been spent, and now I can only wonder which of the wasted seconds given over to the inciting tidbit of trivial news was the extra one, the oddball, borrowed for the sake of this exercise from its correct (if random) position at the end of the year.
The ultimate message here is that, as evidenced by the short career of One Direction, every second is precious, whether it be a hyped-up 11:59:60-style temporal oddity or a plain old blue-collar nine-to-five second like the ones that used to be more common.
It’s your choice how to spend your seconds, but you should do so in a way that makes them count. You have a few months to ponder your choice.