## Leap seconds

2012 was a leap year, 2016 will be too, as will 2020 – you get the picture.

Every four years, the Gregorian calendar observers what is known as a leap year, a year with one day extra than the previous three years, or than the next three. This is because the solar year (how long it takes the earth to complete an entire orbit of the sun) is almost 6 hours longer than the standard 365 days calendar year.

### Solar vs Gregorian Time

There is however a small issue with leap years. The original rule of adding a leap day every fourth year ever so slightly overcompensates for the time difference, as the solar year is 365.2422 days long. With leap years the average year has 365.25 days, which is 0.0078 days too many! Also, our planets spin is slightly irregular, meaning that some [solar] days are slightly longer [as in milliseconds!] than others, whilst others are slightly shorter.

You might think that there really isn’t any point in worrying about 0.0078 days, as it would take over 128 years before all those tiny bits of days added up to make an entire day. However if we ignored the 0.0078 days, in 23,376 years we would have lost so much time, the seasons would have completely reversed, as there would be a huge 6 months of time distortion!

To solve the problem, clever scientists have worked out that if we miss out three leap days (omitting three leap years) every 400 years, then the average calendar year becomes 365.2425 days long. However this still leaves a 0.0003 day (or 25.92 second) difference each 400 year cycle – 0.0648 seconds every year. A relatively insignificant amount, but all the same, we want to be accurate, so a solution has been found!

### Leap Seconds

Every so often we also get a leap second. Due to the irregularity of the movement of the earth, it is impossible to construct a precise schedule for these seconds.

Leap seconds are added in as and when they are needed, so the Gregorian measure of time should never be more than one second out of sync with the measure of time linked to the earth’s orbit.

Sometimes leap seconds are positive, meaning they add to time, and they can also [in theory] be negative.

Leap seconds are usually added to the end of the day, at the end of a year, or half year period. The most recent leap second was on July the 30th 2012, where one second was added to time, so it didn’t become the 1st of June the second after 23:59:59, it instead became 23:59:60.

### Problems With Leap Seconds

Leap seconds are brilliant from a scientific perspective, as they help to keep time and the environment in almost perfect constant sync, year after year. However from a technical perspective, they pose some huge problems!

Remember the huge fuss about the Millennium bug, the problems the turn of the century was [thought] to cause and the money that was thrown at it? Ultimately, nothing major happened. Leap seconds pose a similar sort of technological issue, but the threat much more real.

The most recent leap second, caused major technical issues for firms all around the world. Just before the leap second, there was a solar storm, which disrupted technology, especially websites, needless to say this didn’t help the leap second scenario in the slightest!

One of the most high profile victims of the June 2012 leap second was social network Reddit. Due to the nature of its activates Reddit relies heavily on synchronised operations, as do Foursquare, LinkedIn, Gawker, and StumbleUpon, who were all also affected. When the time on the servers of these services was thrown out of sync by one second with the time Apache Cassandra and Java were displaying, their technical systems went into meltdown!

After a few hours, most of the technical blackout was over, and the majority of services were back up and running.

Six months notice is given prior to a leap second, and for many firms they are not a problem. Measures do need to be put in place, however if they are, there are [usually] no issues.

### Should We Abolish The Leap Second?

From a scientific perspective, the leap second is a fantastic idea; it keeps time perfectly synchronised. However from a technical perspective it is a bit of a costly annoyance.

In January 2012, there was a meeting by the ITU, who discussed whether or not to drop the leap second. We could just ignore these time adjustments altogether, or we could add a leap hour every few hundred years. Despite hopes, the ITU were unable to reach a consensus, so have put off making a decision until 2015 – at the earliest.

## E-Waste and Computer Recycling

I am by no means a ‘techie’ as Christopher calls himself, but a quick look round my house reveals a quite astounding history. In various cupboards I find an HP desktop computer from about 10 years ago, very rarely if ever used, another obsolete Hitachi desktop from 15 years ago, my last Chinese laptop (the lid broke off), an IBM Thinkpad, an HP laptop, an old Vaio and even an Ollivetti laptop from 20 years ago.

I have never thrown them out for various reasons, one being security, another being that one day I might need my undergraduate dissertation for something and the third being that I want to know what happens to them when they are taken away.

Recently I have learned that all is not quite what it seems with recycling of computers too, and this makes my quandary all the more difficult.

Chinese workers take apart electronic trash on the street in Guiyu, China.

Several companies offer to recycle your old computer for you, and an enormous industry has grown up around the trade in old technology. In China entire cities have been born that specialize in taking our old stuff, but I feel that recycling is a bit of a big word to use for the ensuing process, as it has positive connotations. The computers are dismantled and all of the re usable pieces taken away, then the rest is dumped in a large pile. People from the surrounding areas scratch a living by doing a bit of home made scavenging, be that boiling components on their cooker at home or dipping cables in acid baths to extract the tiny bits of semi precious metals that they contain. Obviously this is done without regulation, and the results are often poisoning for those involved and the surrounding areas. See this photo essay about the city of Guiyu pictured above, probably the largest e-dumping ground on Earth today, and where a large portion of the products in question end up.

Another possibility is that the computers are shipped as donations to the Third World. These donations come in containers, not packaged in cardboard however but just thrown in, so although some do work, the majority don’t. The recipients have to unload them and try each one to see if it is usable. Those that don’t have to be dumped, and can be found piled up in heaps or abandoned by the roadside outside the larger African Cities, again to poison the ground etc.

This video from Ghana goes into greater detail.

India has some recycling sites and used to import waste for processing but now the problem is that the country itself is now a major producer of waste as it becomes one of the most technology saturated countries on the planet. And India is not alone, consumer societies all over the ex developing world are hungry for new technology, and obsolescence is just round the corner. This short article in Time expands upon the argument.

Large sums of money are involved as we would imagine, but the industry is practically non-regulated in real terms. Government regulation does exist but with the majority of the work carried out in the informal economy it is not adhered to, and dirty job as it may be it provides income for hundreds of thousands of poor migrant labourers.

And we are speaking about a problem that can only get worse. I personally don’t think it has to or should be like this however, it is not fair and it is exploitation, and so my question is ‘what can be done about it?’ Or more correctly ‘what can we do about it?’ We are the guilty party after all.

## The world’s most powerful radio telescope is now functioning!

One of the best places to put a telescope is in the Atacama Desert, which is on the boarder of Chile and Peru – currently there are around 20 telescopes (both radio and optical) functioning in the area.

### The Alma telescope

In the last few days, the world’s largest radio telescope, the Alma telescope, has began to function. Currently the telescope is made up of around 20 massive antenna dishes, which work in harmony to produce amazingly detailed pictures of outer space.

The project has input from all around the world, with Europe, North America, East Asia and the Republic of Chile forming a partnership, all doing their bit to add more antenna dishes and improve the telescope.

The antenna dishes that currently make up the telescope ALMA Telescope

When the project is completed, (hopefully within the next 20 years if all goes to plan) the telescope will have a whopping 66 dishes at its disposal, all of which it can use to gaze at the stars in fantastic detail!

### Why the Atacama Desert?

You are probably wondering why the Atacama Desert is such a hotspot for telescope activity. Well there are a number of reasons, but the main ones are that it has clear skies almost all the time, in addition to very dry air – meaning that its hard for humans to breath there due to low oxygen levels, but for the telescopes, that means very little interference from anything in the space above.

Furthermore, the desert has many high flat areas, meaning that telescopes can be closer to the atmosphere, meaning even less interference. In addition to this, because the Atacama is a desert, it has virtually no light pollution. Basically it is an astronomer’s dream location!

### Is it working?

The project has only been live for less than a week now, but already some stunning high detailed pictures of space area already beginning to emerge. Below is one of these great pictures:

A picture of deep space made possible by the ALMA Telescope

Because the light we can see here on earth is often millions, if not billions of years old, we are able to see into the past when looking up at the sky, using super powerful telescopes like the Alma one.

Scientists believe that we will be able to see events that happened just 400 million years after the big bang, due to the light delay, hence enabling us to understand better than ever before the formation of the early universe.

The Alma telescope is just one small cog in our planets fascinating scientific road of discovery, however one thing’s for sure: this ‘small cog’ should be able to help us understand a lot more about the universe than ever before!