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Time Definition and Standards

Common Units of Time
The SI base unit for time is the SI second. From the second, larger units such as the minute, hour and day are defined, though they are "non-SI" units because they do not use the decimal system, and also because of the occasional need for a leap second. They are, however, officially accepted for use with the International System. There are no fixed ratios between seconds and months or years as months and years have significant variations in length.

The official SI definition of the second is as follows:

The second is the duration of 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.

At its 1997 meeting, the CIPM affirmed that this definition refers to a cesium atom in its ground state at a temperature of 0 K. Previous to 1967, the second was defined as:

the fraction 1/31,556,925.9747 of the tropical year for 1900 January 0 at 12 hours ephemeris time.

The current definition of the second, coupled with the current definition of the meter, is based on the special theory of relativity, which affirms our space-time to be a Minkowski space.

World time

Time keeping is so critical to the functioning of modern societies that it is coordinated at an international level. The basis for scientific time is a continuous count of seconds based on atomic clocks around the world, known as the International Atomic Time (TAI). Other scientific time standards include Terrestrial Time and Barycentric Dynamical Time.

Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) is the basis for modern civil time. Since January 1, 1972, it has been defined to follow TAI with an exact offset of an integer number of seconds, changing only when a leap second is added to keep clock time synchronized with the rotation of the Earth. In TAI and UTC systems, the duration of a second is constant, as it is defined by the unchanging transition period of the cesium atom.

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is an older standard, adopted starting with British railroads in 1847. Using telescopes instead of atomic clocks, GMT was calibrated to the mean solar time at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich in the UK. Universal Time (UT) is the modern term for the international telescope-based system, adopted to replace "Greenwich Mean Time" in 1928 by the International Astronomical Union. Observations at the Greenwich Observatory itself ceased in 1954, though the location is still used as the basis for the coordinate system. Because the rotational period of Earth is not perfectly constant, the duration of a second would vary if calibrated to a telescope-based standard like GMT or UT - in which a second was defined as a fraction of a day or year. The terms "GMT" and "Greenwich Mean Time" are sometimes used informally to refer to UT or UTC.

The Global Positioning System also broadcasts a very precise time signal worldwide, along with instructions for converting GPS time to UTC.

Earth is split up into a number of time zones. Most time zones are exactly one hour apart, and by convention compute their local time as an offset from UTC or GMT. In many locations these offsets vary twice yearly due to daylight saving time transitions.

Sidereal time

Sidereal time is the measurement of time relative to a distant star (instead of solar time that is relative to the sun). It is used in astronomy to predict when a star will be overhead. Due to the rotation of the earth around the sun a sidereal day is 1/366th of a day (4 minutes) less than a solar day.


Another form of time measurement consists of studying the past. Events in the past can be ordered in a sequence (creating a chronology), and can be put into chronological groups (periodization). One of the most important systems of periodization is geologic time, which is a system of periodizing the events that shaped the Earth and its life. Chronology, periodization, and interpretation of the past are together known as the study of history.