[LEAPSECS] Happy Birthday Pluto!

Rob Seaman seaman at noao.edu
Mon Feb 18 15:43:11 EST 2008

Surely the generous gifts of the Kofedix Dunark of Kondal upon the
planet Osnom:

> On his left wrist he wore an Osnomian chronometer. This was an

> instrument resembling the odometer of an automobile, whose numerous

> revolving segments revealed a large and constantly increasing number—

> the date and time of the Osnomian day, expressed in a decimal number

> of the karkamo of Kondalian history.


> "Greetings, oh guests from Earth! I feel more like myself, now that

> I am again in my trappings and have my weapons at my side. Will you

> accompany me to koprat, or are you not hungry?" as he attached the

> peculiar timepieces to the wrists of the guests, with bracelets of

> the deep-blue metal.


> [...] [T]he chronometer upon his wrist, which, driven by wireless

> impulses from the master-clock in the national observatory, was

> clicking off the darkamo with an almost inaudible purr of its

> smoothly-revolving segments.

> - E.E. Smith, The Skylark of Space, http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/20869

...and of Orlon, the First of Astronomy of the planet Norlamin:

> "Welcome to Norlamin, Terrestrials," the deep, calm voice of the

> astronomer greeted them, and Orlon in the flesh shook hands

> cordially in the American fashion with each of them in turn, and

> placed around each neck a crystal chain from which depended a small

> Norlaminian chronometer-radiophone.

> - Skylark Three, http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/21051

...testify to the key role that timekeeping plays throughout our busy

Remarkably, Hubble's settling of the Shapley-Curtis debate on the
nature of the galaxy (and the universe) was roughly contemporaneous
with "Doc" Smith's imaginative (if leaden) fiction. Closer to home,
on the question of the scale of our solar system, Pluto was not
discovered until 18 February 1930. Happy Birthday Pluto!

Not only does a clock make a thoughtful gift upon landing on a new
planet, but we have examples of thoughtfully diurnal timekeeping on
another planet in the real universe - `namely the two rovers on Mars.
As I type this, it is 23:09 local mean Martian time (http://www.giss.nasa.gov/tools/mars24/help/notes.html
) for Spirit and 11:08 for Opportunity. Nearing midnight for one and
noon for the other. ` Moreover, to resolve any doubt of the intent,
Spirit is depicted on a darkened landscape, Opportunity in daylight
(marsrover.nasa.gov). It is noted that the rovers are each 1350+ sols
past their design life. (One doubts the distinctive name for a
Martian day, "sol", derives from a type of flatfish.)

It is possible that the highly evolved Kondalians and Norlaminians
handed their terrestrial visitors the equivalent of pure atomic
clocks, unsullied by the vagaries of the local sun (or suns). Smith
doesn't say. I think it more likely, however, that our spacefarers
were graced with a watch set to local time precisely to permit them to
keep track of the unfamiliar cadence of the daylight hours. A clock
is a rate, not just a zero point (and UTCng breaks both).

Sputnik was launched on 4 October 1957. Nine months later to the day,
I was born. Likelihood of causal connection? Low (although "baby
boom" in Russia is the "Sputnik Generation").

Sputnik was launched. Ten months later, NASA was founded with the
signing of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. Likelihood
of connection? Quite high.

For the sake of avoiding conflict, I've learned my lesson and will
stay away from more fanciful speculations. For instance, I won't
strain credulity by trying to tie the fact that the Mars Rover mission
has been extended by a factor of 16 beyond its design life, to some
silly musings over whether system engineering best practices were
followed. What was I thinking?

Rob Seaman
National Optical Astronomy Observatory

"To know where the other person makes a mistake is of little value. It
only becomes interesting when you know where you make the mistake, for
then you can do something about it. What we can improve in others is
of doubtful utility as a rule, if, indeed, it has any effect at all."
- Jung

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