Why 1 Second Is 1 Second

Nathaniel Scharping in Discover Magazine:

Just what is a second, exactly? The question has been open to interpretation ever since the first long-case grandfather clocks began marking off seconds in the mid-17th century and introduced the concept to the world at large. The answer, simply, is that a second is 1/60th of a minute, or 1/3600th of an hour. But that’s just pushing the question down the road a bit. After all, what’s an hour? That answer is related to the best means of time-keeping ancient civilizations had — the movement of the Earth through the heavens. The amount of time it takes for the Earth to turn once about its axis, or for it to rotate once about the sun, is fairly stable, and for much of human history, it sufficed as a way of marking the passage of time. Days, hours, minutes — they’re all just derivatives of planetary motion.

Not Enough Time

Today, however, when computers perform operations at the rate of 4 billion cycles per second, we need a better measure. The rotation of Earth, and its orbit, change slightly over time. Earth’s rotation, for example, is slowing slightly. So measuring a second based on rotation would mean that a second would get slowly longer over time. Ultimately, we couldn’t compare the second of today to the second of yesterday. So, to pin down a truly timeless measure of a second, scientists in the 1950s devised a better clock, one based not on astronomical processes but on the movement of fundamental bits of matter — atoms — whose subtle vibrations are, for all intents and purposes, locked in for eternity. Today, one second is defined as “9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom”.

That’s a mouthful.

More here.