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Time as Systematized in Modern Scientific Society

Time measurement: general concepts

Accuracy in specifying time is needed for civil, industrial, and scientific purposes. Although defining time presents difficulties, measuring it does not; it is the most accurately measured physical quantity. A time measurement assigns a unique number to either an epoch, which specifies the moment when an instantaneous event occurs, in the sense of time of day, or a time interval, which is the duration of a continued event. The progress of any phenomenon that undergoes regular changes may be used to measure time. Such phenomena make up much of the subject matter of astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, and biology. The following sections of this article treat time measurements based on manifestations of gravitation, electromagnetism, rotational inertia, and radioactivity.

Series of events can be referred to a time scale, which is an ordered set of times derived from observations of some phenomenon. Two independent, fundamental time scales are those called dynamical—based on the regularity of the motions of celestial bodies fixed in their orbits by gravitation—and atomic—based on the characteristic frequency of electromagnetic radiation used to induce quantum transitions between internal energy states of atoms.

Two time scales that have no relative secular acceleration are called equivalent. That is, a clock displaying the time according to one of these scales would not—over an extended interval—show a change in its rate relative to that of a clock displaying time according to the other scale. It is not certain whether the dynamical and atomic scales are equivalent, but present definitions treat them as being so.

The Earth's daily rotation about its own axis provides a time scale, but one that is not equivalent to the fundamental scales because tidal friction, among other factors, inexorably decreases the Earth's rotational speed (symbolized by the Greek letter omega, ω). Universal time (UT), once corrected for polar variation (UT1) and also seasonal variation (UT2), is needed for civil purposes, celestial navigation, and tracking of space vehicles.

The decay of radioactive elements is a random, rather than a repetitive, process, but the statistical reliability of the time required for the disappearance of any given fraction of a particular element can be used for measuring long time intervals.

Principal scales

Numerous time scales have been formed; several important ones are described in detail in subsequent sections of this article. The abbreviations given here are derived from English or French terms. Universal Time (UT; mean solar time or the prime meridian of Greenwich, England), Coordinated Universal Time (UTC; the basis of legal, civil time), and leap seconds are treated under the heading Rotational time. Ephemeris Time (ET; the first correct dynamical time scale) is treated in the section Dynamical time, as are Barycentric Dynamical Time (TDB) and Terrestrial Dynamical Time (TDT), which are more accurate than Ephemeris Time because they take relativity into account. International Atomic Time (TAI; introduced in 1955) is covered in the section Atomic time.

Relativistic effects

Accuracies of atomic clocks and modern observational techniques are so high that the small differences between classical mechanics (as developed by Newton in the 17th century) and relativistic mechanics (according to the special and general theories of relativity proposed by Einstein in the early 20th century) must be taken into account. The equations of motion that define TDB include relativistic terms. The atomic clocks that form TAI, however, are corrected only for height above sea level, not for periodic relativistic variations, because all fixed terrestrial clocks are affected identically. TAI and TDT differ from TDB by calculable periodic variations.

Apparent positions of celestial objects, as tabulated in ephemerides, are corrected for the Sun's gravitational deflection of light rays.


The atomic clock provides the most precise time scale. It has made possible new, highly accurate techniques for measuring time and distance. These techniques, involving radar, lasers, spacecraft, radio telescopes, and pulsars, have been applied to the study of problems in celestial mechanics, astrophysics, relativity, and cosmogony.

Atomic clocks serve as the basis of scientific and legal clock times. A single clock, atomic or quartz-crystal, synchronized with either TAI or UTC provides the SI second (that is, the second as defined in the International System of Units), TAI, UTC, and TDT immediately with high accuracy.

Time units and calendar divisions

The familiar subdivision of the day into 24 hours, the hour into 60 minutes, and the minute into 60 seconds dates to the ancient Egyptians. When the increasing accuracy of clocks led to the adoption of the mean solar day, which contained 86,400 seconds, this mean solar second became the basic unit of time. The adoption of the SI second, defined on the basis of atomic phenomena, as the fundamental time unit has necessitated some changes in the definitions of other terms.

In this article, unless otherwise indicated, second (symbolized s) means the SI second; a minute (m or min) is 60 s; an hour (h) is 60 m or 3,600 s. An astronomical day (d) equals 86,400 s. An ordinary calendar day equals 86,400 s, and a leap-second calendar day equals 86,401 s. A common year contains 365 calendar days and a leap year, 366.

The system of consecutively numbering the years of the Christian Era was devised by Dionysius Exiguus in about 525; it included the reckoning of dates as either AD or BC (the year before AD 1 was 1 BC). The Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC, was then in use, and any year whose number was exactly divisible by four was designated a leap year. In the Gregorian calendar, introduced in 1582 and now in general use, the centurial years are common years unless their numbers are exactly divisible by 400; thus, 1600 was a leap year, but 1700 was not.
Lengths of years and months
The tropical year, whose period is that of the seasons, is the interval between successive passages of the Sun through the vernal equinox. Because the Earth's motion is perturbed by the gravitational attraction of the other planets and because of an acceleration in precession, the tropical year decreases slowly, as shown by comparing its length at the end of the 19th century (365.242196 d) with that at the end of the 20th (365.242190 d). The accuracy of the Gregorian calendar results from the close agreement between the length of its average year, 365.2425 calendar days, and that of the tropical year.

A calendar month may contain 28 to 31 calendar days; the average is 30.437. The synodic month, the interval from New Moon to New Moon, averages 29.531 d.
Astronomical years and dates
In the Julian calendar, a year contains either 365 or 366 days, and the average is 365.25 calendar days. Astronomers have adopted the term Julian year to denote an interval of 365.25 d, or 31,557,600 s. The corresponding Julian century equals 36,525 d. For convenience in specifying events separated by long intervals, astronomers use Julian dates (JD) in accordance with a system proposed in 1583 by the French classical scholar Joseph Scaliger and named in honor of his father, Julius Caesar Scaliger. In this system days are numbered consecutively from 0.0, which is identified as Greenwich mean noon of the day assigned the date Jan. 1, 4713 BC, by reckoning back according to the Julian calendar. The modified Julian date (MJD), defined by the equation MJD = JD - 2,400,000.5, begins at midnight rather than noon and, for the 20th and 21st centuries, is expressed by a number with fewer digits. For example, Greenwich mean noon of Nov. 14, 1981 (Gregorian calendar date), corresponds to JD 2,444,923.0; the preceding midnight occurred at JD 2,444,922.5 and MJD 44,922.0.

Historical details of the week, month, year, and various calendars are treated in the article calendar.

Rotational time

The Earth's rotation causes the stars and the Sun to appear to rise each day in the east and set in the west. The apparent solar day is measured by the interval of time between two successive passages of the Sun across the observer's celestial meridian, the visible half of the great circle that passes through the zenith and the celestial poles. One sidereal day (very nearly) is measured by the interval of time between two similar passages of a star. Fuller treatments of astronomical reference points and planes are given in the articles astronomical map; and celestial mechanics.

The plane in which the Earth orbits about the Sun is called the ecliptic. As seen from the Earth, the Sun moves eastward on the ecliptic 360° per year, almost one degree per day. As a result, an apparent solar day is nearly four minutes longer, on the average, than a sidereal day. The difference varies, however, from 3 minutes 35 seconds to 4 minutes 26 seconds during the year because of the ellipticity of the Earth's orbit, in which at different times of the year it moves at slightly different rates, and because of the 23 1/2° inclination of the ecliptic to the Equator. In consequence, apparent solar time is nonuniform with respect to dynamical time. A sundial indicates apparent solar time.

The introduction of the pendulum as a timekeeping element to clocks during the 17th century increased their accuracy greatly and enabled more precise values for the equation of time to be determined. This development led to mean solar time as the norm; it is defined below. The difference between apparent solar time and mean solar time, called the equation of time, varies from zero to about 16 minutes.

The measures of sidereal, apparent solar, and mean solar time are defined by the hour angles of certain points, real or fictitious, in the sky. Hour angle is the angle, taken to be positive to the west, measured along the celestial equator between an observer's meridian and the hour circle on which some celestial point or object lies. Hour angles are measured from zero through 24 hours.

Sidereal time is the hour angle of the vernal equinox, a reference point that is one of the two intersections of the celestial equator and the ecliptic. Because of a small periodic oscillation, or wobble, of the Earth's axis, called nutation, there is a distinction between the true and mean equinoxes. The difference between true and mean sidereal times, defined by the two equinoxes, varies from zero to about one second.

Apparent solar time is the hour angle of the centre of the true Sun plus 12 hours. Mean solar time is 12 hours plus the hour angle of the centre of the fictitious mean Sun. This is a point that moves along the celestial equator with constant speed and that coincides with the true Sun on the average. In practice, mean solar time is not obtained from observations of the Sun. Instead, sidereal time is determined from observations of the transit across the meridian of stars, and the result is transformed by means of a quadratic formula to obtain mean solar time.

Standard time

Local mean solar time depends upon longitude; it is advanced by four minutes per degree eastward. In 1869 Charles F. Dowd, principal of a school in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., proposed the use of time zones, within which all localities would keep the same time. Others, including Sir Sandford Fleming, a Canadian civil engineer, strongly advocated this idea. Time zones were adopted by U.S. and Canadian railroads in 1883.

In October 1884 an international conference held in Washington, D.C., adopted the meridian of the transit instrument at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, as the prime, or zero, meridian. This led to the adoption of 24 standard time zones; the boundaries are determined by local authorities and in many places deviate considerably from the 15° intervals of longitude implicit in the original idea. The times in different zones differ by an integral number of hours; minutes and seconds are the same.

The International Date Line is a line in the mid-Pacific Ocean near 180° longitude. When one travels across it westward a calendar day is added; one day is dropped in passing eastward. This line also deviates from a straight path in places to accommodate national boundaries and waters.

During World War I, daylight-saving time was adopted in various countries; clocks were advanced one hour to save fuel by reducing the need for artificial light in evening hours. During World War II, all clocks in the United States were kept one hour ahead of standard time for the interval Feb. 9, 1942–Sept. 30, 1945, with no changes made in summer. Beginning in 1967, by act of Congress, the United States has observed daylight-saving time in summer, though state legislatures retain the power to pass exempting laws, and a few have done so.

The day begins at midnight and runs through 24 hours. In the 24-hour system of reckoning, used in Europe and by military agencies of the United States, the hours and minutes are given as a four-digit number. Thus 0028 means 28 minutes past midnight, and 1240 means 40 minutes past noon. Also, 2400 of May 15 is the same as 0000 of May 16. This system allows no uncertainty as to the epoch designated.

In the 12-hour system there are two sets of 12 hours; those from midnight to noon are designated AM (ante meridiem, “before noon”), and those from noon to midnight are designated PM (post meridiem, “after noon”). The use of AM and PM to designate either noon or midnight can cause ambiguity. To designate noon, either the word noon or 1200 or 12 M should be used. To designate midnight without causing ambiguity, the two dates between which it falls should be given unless the 24-hour notation is used. Thus, midnight may be written: May 15–16 or 2400 May 15 or 0000 May 16.

Universal Time

Until 1928 the standard time of the zero meridian was called Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Astronomers used Greenwich Mean Astronomical Time (GMAT), in which the day begins at noon. In 1925 the system was changed so that GMT was adopted by astronomers, and in 1928 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) adopted the term Universal Time (UT).

In 1955 the IAU defined several kinds of UT. The initial values of Universal Time obtained at various observatories, denoted UT0, differ slightly because of polar motion. A correction is added for each observatory to convert UT0 into UT1. An empirical correction to take account of annual changes in the speed of rotation is then added to convert UT1 to UT2. UT2 has since been superseded by atomic time.

Variations in the Earth's rotation rate

The Earth does not rotate with perfect uniformity, and the variations have been classified as (1) secular, resulting from tidal friction, (2) irregular, ascribed to motions of the Earth's core, and (3) periodic, caused by seasonal meteorological phenomena.

Separating the first two categories is very difficult. Observations made since 1621, after the introduction of the telescope, show irregular fluctuations about a decade in duration and a long one that began about 1650 and is not yet complete. The large amplitude of this effect makes it impossible to determine the secular variation from data accumulated during an interval of only about four centuries. The record is supplemented, however, by reports—not always reliable—of eclipses that occurred tens of centuries ago. From this extended set of information it is found that, relative to dynamical time, the length of the mean solar day increases secularly about 1.6 milliseconds per century, the rate of the Earth's rotation decreases about one part per million in 5,000 years, and rotational time loses about 30 seconds per century squared.

The annual seasonal term, nearly periodic, has a coefficient of about 25 milliseconds.

Coordinated Universal Time; leap seconds

The time and frequency broadcasts of the United Kingdom and the United States were coordinated (synchronized) in 1960. As required, adjustments were made in frequency, relative to atomic time, and in epoch to keep the broadcast signals close to the UT scale. This program expanded in 1964 under the auspices of the IAU into a worldwide system called Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).

Since Jan. 1, 1972, the UTC frequency has been the TAI frequency, the difference between TAI and UTC has been kept at some integral number of seconds, and the difference between UT1 and UTC has been kept within 0.9 second by inserting a leap second into UTC as needed. Synchronization is achieved by making the last minute of June or December contain 61 (or, possibly, 59) seconds.

About one leap second per year has been inserted since 1972. Estimates of the loss per year of UT1 relative to TAI owing to tidal friction range from 0.7 second in 1900 to 1.3 seconds in 2000. Irregular fluctuations cause unpredictable gains or losses; these have not exceeded 0.3 second per year.

Time determination

The classical, astrometric methods of obtaining UT0 are, in essence, determinations of the instant at which a star crosses the local celestial meridian. Instruments used include the transit, the photographic zenith tube, and the prismatic astrolabe.

The transit is a small telescope that can be moved only in the plane of the meridian. The observer generates a signal at the instant that the image of the star is seen to cross a very thin cross hair aligned in the meridian plane. The signal is recorded on a chronograph that simultaneously displays the readings of the clock that is being checked.

The photographic zenith tube (PZT) is a telescope permanently mounted in a precisely vertical position. The light from a star passing almost directly overhead is refracted by the lens, reflected from the perfectly horizontal surface of a pool of mercury, and brought to a focus just beneath the lens. A photographic plate records the images of the star at clock times close to that at which it crosses the meridian. The vertical alignment of the PZT minimizes the effects of atmospheric refraction. From the positions of the images on the plate, the time at which the star transits the meridian can be accurately compared with the clock time. The distance of the star from the zenith (north or south) also can be ascertained. This distance varies slightly from year to year and is a measure of the latitude variation caused by the slight movement of the Earth's axis of rotation relative to its crust.

The prismatic astrolabe is a refinement of the instrument used since antiquity for measuring the altitude of a star above the horizon. The modern device consists of a horizontal telescope into which the light from the star is reflected from two surfaces of a prism that has three faces at 60° angles. The light reaches one of these faces directly from the star; it reaches the other after reflection from the surface of a pool of mercury. The light traversing the separate paths is focused to form two images of the star that coincide when the star reaches the altitude of 60°. This instant is automatically recorded and compared with the reading of a clock. Like the PZT, the prismatic astrolabe detects the variation in the latitude of the observatory.

Dynamical time

Dynamical time is defined descriptively as the independent variable, T, in the differential equations of motion of celestial bodies. The gravitational ephemeris of a planet tabulates its orbital position for values of T. Observation of the position of the planet makes it possible to consult the ephemeris and find the corresponding dynamical time.

The most sensitive index of dynamical time is the position of the Moon because of the rapid motion of that body across the sky. The equations that would exactly describe the motion of the Moon in the absence of tidal friction, however, must be slightly modified to account for the deceleration that this friction produces. The correction is made by adding an empirical term, αT2, to the longitude, λ, given by gravitational theory. The need for this adjustment was not recognized for a long time.

The American astronomer Simon Newcomb noted in 1878 that fluctuations in λ that he had found could be due to fluctuations in rotational time; he compiled a table of Δt, its difference from the time scale based on uniform rotation of the Earth. Realizing that nonuniform rotation of the Earth should also cause apparent fluctuations in the motion of Mercury, Newcomb searched for these in 1882 and 1896, but the observational errors were so large that he could not confirm his theory.

A large fluctuation in the Earth's rotational speed, ω, began about 1896, and its effects on the apparent motions of both the Moon and Mercury were described by the Scottish-born astronomer Robert T.A. Innes in 1925. Innes proposed a time scale based on the motion of the Moon, and his scale of Δt from 1677 to 1924, based on observations of Mercury, was the first true dynamical scale, later called Ephemeris Time.

Ephemeris Time

Further studies by the Dutch astronomer Willem de Sitter in 1927 and by Harold Spencer Jones (later Sir Harold, Astronomer Royal of England) in 1939 confirmed that ω had secular and irregular variations. Using their results, the U.S. astronomer Gerald M. Clemence in 1948 derived the equations needed to define a dynamical scale numerically and to convert measurements of the Moon's position into time values. The fundamental definition was based on the Earth's orbital motion as given by Newcomb's tables of the Sun of 1898. The IAU adopted the dynamical scale in 1952 and called it Ephemeris Time (ET). Clemence's equations were used to revise the lunar ephemeris published in 1919 by the American mathematician Ernest W. Brown to form the Improved Lunar Ephemeris (ILE) of 1954.

Ephemeris second

The IAU in 1958 defined the second of Ephemeris Time as 1/31,556,925.9747 of the tropical year that began at the instant specified, in astronomers' terms, as 1900 January 0d 12h, “the instant, near the beginning of the calendar year AD 1900, when the geocentric mean longitude of the Sun was 279° 41′ 48.04″ ”—that is, Greenwich noon on Dec. 31, 1899. In 1960 the General Conference of Weights and Measures (CGPM) adopted the same definition for the SI second.

Since, however, 1900 was past, this definition could not be used to obtain the ET or SI second. It was obtained in practice from lunar observations and the ILE and was the basis of the redefinition, in 1967, of the SI second on the atomic time scale. The present SI second thus depends directly on the ILE.

The ET second defined by the ILE is based in a complex manner on observations made up to 1938 of the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, and Venus, referred to the variable, mean solar time. Observations show that the ET second equals the average mean solar second from 1750 to 1903.


In 1976 the IAU defined two scales for dynamical theories and ephemerides to be used in almanacs beginning in 1984.

Barycentric Dynamical Time (TDB) is the independent variable in the equations, including terms for relativity, of motion of the celestial bodies. The solution of these equations gives the rectangular coordinates of those bodies relative to the barycentre (centre of mass) of the solar system. (The barycentre does not coincide with the centre of the Sun but is displaced to a point near its surface in the direction of Jupiter.) Which theory of general relativity to use was not specified, so a family of TDB scales could be formed, but the differences in coordinates would be small.

Terrestrial Dynamical Time (TDT) is an auxiliary scale defined by the equation TDT = TAI + 32.184 s. Its unit is the SI second. The constant difference between TDT and TAI makes TDT continuous with ET for periods before TAI was defined (mid-1955). TDT is the time entry in apparent geocentric ephemerides.

The definitions adopted require that TDT = TDB - R, where R is the sum of the periodic, relativistic terms not included in TAI. Both the above equations for TDT can be valid only if dynamical and atomic times are equivalent (see below Atomic time: SI second).

For use in almanacs the barycentric coordinates of the Earth and a body at epoch TDB are transformed into the coordinates of the body as viewed from the centre of the Earth at the epoch TDT when a light ray from the body would arrive there. Almanacs tabulate these geocentric coordinates for equal intervals of TDT; since TDT is available immediately from TAI, comparisons between computed and observed positions are readily made.

Since Jan. 1, 1984, the principal ephemerides in The Astronomical Almanac, published jointly by the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the U.S. Naval Observatory, have been based on a highly accurate ephemeris compiled by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., in cooperation with the Naval Observatory. This task involved the simultaneous numerical integration of the equations of motion of the Sun, the Moon, and the planets. The coordinates and velocities at a known time were based on very accurate distance measurements (made with the aid of radar, laser beams, and spacecraft), optical angular observations, and atomic clocks.

Atomic time

Basic principles

The German physicist Max Planck postulated in 1900 that the energy of an atomic oscillator is quantized; that is to say, it equals hν, where h is a constant (now called Planck's constant) and ν is the frequency. Einstein extended this concept in 1905, explaining that electromagnetic radiation is localized in packets, later referred to as photons, of frequency ν and energy E = hν. Niels Bohr of Denmark postulated in 1913 that atoms exist in states of discrete energy and that a transition between two states differing in energy by the amount ΔE is accompanied by absorption or emission of a photon that has a frequency ν = ΔE/h. For detailed information concerning the phenomena on which atomic time is based, see electromagnetic radiation, radioactivity, and quantum mechanics.

In an unperturbed atom, not affected by neighbouring atoms or external fields, the energies of the various states depend only upon intrinsic features of atomic structure, which are postulated not to vary. A transition between a pair of these states involves absorption or emission of a photon with a frequency ν0, designated the fundamental frequency associated with that particular transition.

Atomic clocks

Transitions in many atoms and molecules involve sharply defined frequencies in the vicinity of 1010 hertz, and, after dependable methods of generating such frequencies were developed during World War II for microwave radar, they were applied to problems of timekeeping. In 1946 principles of the use of atomic and molecular transitions for regulating the frequency of electronic oscillators were described, and in 1947 an oscillator controlled by a quantum transition of the ammonia molecule was constructed. An ammonia-controlled clock was built in 1949 at the National Bureau of Standards, Washington, D.C.; in this clock the frequency did not vary by more than one part in 108. In 1954 an ammonia-regulated oscillator of even higher precision—the first maser—was constructed.
Cesium clocks
In 1938 the so-called resonance technique of manipulating a beam of atoms or molecules was introduced. This technique was adopted in several attempts to construct a cesium-beam atomic clock, and in 1955 the first such clock was placed in operation at the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, Eng.

In practice, the most accurate control of frequency is achieved by detecting the interaction of radiation with atoms that can undergo some selected transition. From a beam of cesium vapor, a magnetic field first isolates a stream of atoms that can absorb microwaves of the fundamental frequency ν0. Upon traversing the microwave field, some—not all—of these atoms do absorb energy, and a second magnetic field isolates these and steers them to a detector. The number of atoms reaching the detector is greatest when the microwave frequency exactly matches ν0, and the detector response is used to regulate the microwave frequency. The frequency of the cesium clock is νt = ν0 + Δν, where Δν is the frequency shift caused by slight instrumental perturbations of the energy levels. This frequency shift can be determined accurately, and the circuitry of the clock is arranged so that νt is corrected to generate an operational frequency ν0 + ε, where ε is the error in the correction. The measure of the accuracy of the frequency-control system is the fractional error ε/ν0, which is symbolized γ. Small, commercially built cesium clocks attain values of γ of ±1 or 2 × 10-12; in a large, laboratory-constructed clock, whose operation can be varied to allow experiments on factors that can affect the frequency, γ can be reduced to ±5 × 10-14.

Between 1955 and 1958 the National Physical Laboratory and the U.S. Naval Observatory conducted a joint experiment to determine the frequency maintained by the cesium-beam clock at Teddington in terms of the ephemeris second, as established by precise observations of the Moon from Washington, D.C. The radiation associated with the particular transition of the cesium-133 atom was found to have the fundamental frequency ν0 of 9,192,631,770 cycles per second of Ephemeris Time.

The merits of the cesium-beam atomic clock are that (1) the fundamental frequency that governs its operation is invariant; (2) its fractional error is extremely small; and (3) it is convenient to use. Several thousand commercially built cesium clocks, weighing about 70 pounds (32 kilograms) each, have been placed in operation. A few laboratories have built large cesium-beam oscillators and clocks to serve as primary standards of frequency.
Other atomic clocks
Clocks regulated by hydrogen masers have been developed at Harvard University. The frequency of some masers has been kept stable within about one part in 1014 for intervals of a few hours. The uncertainty in the fundamental frequency, however, is greater than the stability of the clock; this frequency is approximately 1,420,405,751.77 Hz. Atomic-beam clocks controlled by a transition of the rubidium atom have been developed, but the operational frequency depends on details of the structure of the clock, so that it does not have the absolute precision of the cesium-beam clock.

SI second

The CGPM redefined the second in 1967 to equal 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation emitted or absorbed in the hyperfine transition of the cesium-133 atom; that is, the transition selected for control of the cesium-beam clock developed at the National Physical Laboratory. The definition implies that the atom should be in the unperturbed state at sea level. It makes the SI second equal to the ET second, determined from measurements of the position of the Moon, within the errors of observation. The definition will not be changed by any additional astronomical determinations.

Atomic time scales

An atomic time scale designated A.1, based on the cesium frequency discussed above, had been formed in 1958 at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Other local scales were formed, and about 1960 the BIH formed a scale based on these. In 1971 the CGPM designated the BIH scale as International Atomic Time (TAI).

The long-term frequency of TAI is based on about six cesium standards, operated continuously or periodically. About 175 commercially made cesium clocks are used also to form the day-to-day TAI scale. These clocks and standards are located at about 30 laboratories and observatories. It is estimated that the second of TAI reproduces the SI second, as defined, within about one part in 1013. Two clocks that differ in rate by this amount would change in epoch by three milliseconds in 1,000 years.

Time and frequency dissemination

Precise time and frequency are broadcast by radio in many countries. Transmissions of time signals began as an aid to navigation in 1904; they are now widely used for many scientific and technical purposes. The seconds pulses are emitted on Coordinated Universal Time, and the frequency of the carrier wave is maintained at some known multiple of the cesium frequency.

The accuracy of the signals varies from about one millisecond for high-frequency broadcasts to one microsecond for the precisely timed pulses transmitted by the stations of the navigation system loran-C. Trigger pulses of television broadcasts provide accurate synchronization for some areas. When precise synchronization is available a quartz-crystal clock suffices to maintain TAI accurately.

Cesium clocks carried aboard aircraft are used to synchronize clocks around the world within about 0.5 microsecond. Since 1962 artificial satellites have been used similarly for widely separated clocks.

Relativistic effects

A clock displaying TAI on Earth will have periodic, relativistic deviations from the dynamical scale TDB and from a pulsar time scale PS (see below Pulsar time). These variations, denoted R above, were demonstrated in 1982–84 by measurements of the pulsar PSR 1937+21.

The main contributions to R result from the continuous changes in the Earth's speed and distance from the Sun. These cause variations in the transverse Doppler effect and in the red shift due to the Sun's gravitational potential. The frequency of TAI is higher at aphelion (about July 3) than at perihelion (about January 4) by about 6.6 parts in 1010, and TAI is more advanced in epoch by about 3.3 milliseconds on October 1 than on April 1.

By Einstein's theory of general relativity a photon produced near the Earth's surface should be higher in frequency by 1.09 parts in 1016 for each meter above sea level. In 1960 the U.S. physicists Robert V. Pound and Glen A. Rebka measured the difference between the frequencies of photons produced at different elevations and found that it agreed very closely with what was predicted. The primary standards used to form the frequency of TAI are corrected for height above sea level.

Two-way, round-the-world flights of atomic clocks in 1971 produced changes in clock epochs that agreed well with the predictions of special and general relativity. The results have been cited as proof that the gravitational red shift in the frequency of a photon is produced when the photon is formed, as predicted by Einstein, and not later, as the photon moves in a gravitational field. In effect, gravitational potential is a perturbation that lowers the energy of a quantum state.

Pulsar time

A pulsar is believed to be a rapidly rotating neutron star whose magnetic and rotational axes do not coincide. Such bodies emit sharp pulses of radiation, at a short period P, detectable by radio telescopes. The emission of radiation and energetic subatomic particles causes the spin rate to decrease and the period to increase. Ṗ, the rate of increase in P, is essentially constant, but sudden changes in the period of some pulsars have been observed.

Although pulsars are sometimes called clocks, they do not tell time. The times at which their pulses reach a radio telescope are measured relative to TAI, and values of P and Ṗ are derived from these times. A time scale formed directly from the arrival times would have a secular deceleration with respect to TAI, but if P for an initial TAI and Ṗ (assumed constant) are obtained from a set of observations, then a pulsar time scale, PS, can be formed such that δ, the difference between TAI and PS, contains only periodic and irregular variations. PS remains valid as long as no sudden change in P occurs.

It is the variations in δ, allowing comparisons of time scales based on very different processes at widely separated locations, that make pulsars extremely valuable. The chief variations are periodic, caused by motions of the Earth. These motions bring about (1) relativistic variations in TAI and (2) variations in distance, and therefore pulse travel time, from pulsar to telescope. Observations of the pulsar PSR 1937+21, corrected for the second effect, confirmed the existence of the first. Residuals (unexplained variations) in δ averaged one microsecond for 30 minutes of observation. This pulsar has the highest rotational speed of any known pulsar, 642 rotations per second. Its period P is 1.55 milliseconds, increasing at the rate Ṗ of 3.3 × 10-12 second per year; the speed decreases by one part per million in 500 years.

Continued observations of such fast pulsars should make it possible to determine the orbital position of the Earth more accurately. These results would provide more accurate data concerning the perturbations of the Earth's motion by the major planets; these in turn would permit closer estimates of the masses of those planets. Residual periodic variations in δ, not due to the sources already mentioned, might indicate gravitational waves. Irregular variations could provide data on starquakes and inhomogeneities in the interstellar medium.

Radiometric time

Atomic nuclei of a radioactive element decay spontaneously, producing other elements and isotopes until a stable species is formed. The life span of a single atom may have any value, but a statistical quantity, the half-life of a macroscopic sample, can be measured; this is the time in which one-half of the sample disintegrates. The age of a rock, for example, can be determined by measuring ratios of the parent element and its decay products.

The decay of uranium to lead was first used to measure long intervals, but the decays of potassium to argon and of rubidium to strontium are more frequently used now. Ages of the oldest rocks found on the Earth are about 3.5 × 109 years. Those of lunar rocks and meteorites are about 4.5 × 109 years, a value believed to be near the age of the Earth.

Radiocarbon dating provides ages of formerly living matter within a range of 500 to 50,000 years. While an organism is living, its body contains about one atom of radioactive carbon-14, formed in the atmosphere by the action of cosmic rays, for every 1012 atoms of stable carbon-12. When the organism dies, it stops exchanging carbon with the atmosphere, and the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 begins to decrease with the half-life of 5,730 years. Measurement of this ratio determines the age of the specimen.

For an extended discussion of the principles of radiometric dating, including sources of error, see dating.

Problems of cosmology and uniform time

It has been suggested—by the English scientists E.A. Milne, Paul A.M. Dirac, and others—that the coefficient G in Newton's equation for the gravitational force might not be constant. Searches for a secular change in G have been made by studying accelerations of the Moon and reflections of radar signals from Mercury, Venus, and Mars. The effects sought are small compared with observational errors, however, and it is not certain whether G is changing or whether dynamical and atomic times have a relative secular acceleration.

A goal in timekeeping has been to obtain a scale of uniform time, but forming one presents problems. If, for example, dynamical and atomic time should have a relative secular acceleration, then which one (if either) could be considered uniform?

By postulates, atomic time is the uniform time of electromagnetism. Leaving aside relativistic and operational effects, are SI seconds formed at different times truly equal? This question cannot be answered without an invariable time standard for reference, but none exists. The conclusion is that no time scale can be proved to be uniform by measurement. This is of no practical consequence, however, because tests have shown that the atomic clock provides a time scale of very high accuracy.