Hang on a second: clocks at a Hong Kong clock and watch fair. Photo: Getty
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The pros and cons of leap seconds

The slowing pace of the earth’s spin means that occasionally we have to add on a second – but should this practice continue?

The British science minister, David Willetts, wants your input on an issue you’ve probably never even thought about. The question, in essence, is this: would you care if, in 800 years’ time, the sun was at its highest point overhead at 1pm, rather than today’s 12 noon?

There’s an international scientific kerfuffle over this. It is prompted by the changing pace of the earth’s spin. The moon and sun pull on our planet, slowing its rotation and giving us an ever-lengthening day. The effect is tiny – adding less than two-thousandths of a second per day – and it is not consistent. Sometimes, the rotation even speeds up for a while. We’re not sure why but we think it is because interactions between earth’s liquid iron core and the rocky mantle that surrounds it can exert an accelerating effect. Ocean currents also seem to speed up the pace at which the

world turns. In the long term, though, we know the days are getting longer. As a result, occasionally, to keep our clocks in sync with when we expect sunrise and sunset to occur, we have to add a “leap second”.

It sounds easy but it’s not. For 14 years, countries have been debating whether the practice of adding a leap second should continue. Shoehorning an extra second into the clocks of computer programs can create software glitches that have widespread effects. In 1998, for instance, the insertion of a leap second caused a mobile-phone blackout across the southern United States because different regions were suddenly operating with time differences outside the error tolerances. Then in 2012 an airline’s booking system went belly-up for hours after a leap second insertion. The US department of defence has argued vociferously that the leap second compromises the “safety and reliability” of certain systems; scaremongers talk about missiles and air-traffic control systems going awry in some such future adjustment.

One solution to this is to let our clock readings gradually drift away from any association with the position of the sun in the sky. After all, who cares?

Well, you – perhaps. Britain is one of very few nations that have battled to keep the leap second. Most countries are happy to let the clocks drift away from “solar time”. The reason for Britain’s reticence is largely to do with ministerial gut feeling about our sense of cultural heritage: the time of day has always been linked with the position of the sun in the sky and why should we abandon that just because some programmers can’t do their job properly? In April, the UK government launched a public consultation to find out what you think (full disclosure: I am on the consultation’s oversight committee checking that the process is fair and frank).

There are potential issues with abandoning the leap second. Human beings have always lived by sunrise and sunset; our biology responds to rising and fading light levels. Without leap seconds, or some other adjustment of time, noon in the year 4000 will occur in total darkness. Also, the sun’s position in the sky plays a role in the timing of certain religious observances. Whether the link to the numbers on a clock face matters in these instances is as yet unknown, hence the consultation. Can we justify dropping the leap second – and maybe redefining “noon” – just because of computer programming problems?

On the other hand, some will argue that we cope with time zones and daylight saving time; why would we care about a second every few years? That’s for you to answer, if you care enough to bother.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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The answer to the antibiotics crisis might be inside your nose

The medical weapons we have equipped ourselves with are losing their power. But scientists scent an answer. 

They say there’s a hero in everyone. It turns out that actually, it resides within only about ten percent of us. Staphylococcus lugdunensis may be the species of bacteria that we arguably don’t deserve, but it is the one that we need.

Recently, experts have cautioned that we may be on the cusp of a post-antibiotic era. In fact, less than a month ago, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention released a report on a woman who died from a "pan-resistant" disease – one that survived the use of all available antibiotics. Back in 1945, the discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming, warned during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech against the misuse of antibiotics. More recently, Britain's Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies has referred to anti-microbial resistance as “the greatest future threat to our civilisation”.

However, hope has appeared in the form of "lugdunin", a compound secreted by a species of bacteria found in a rather unlikely location – the human nose.

Governments and health campaigners alike may be assisted by a discovery by researchers at the University of Tubingen in Germany. According to a study published in Nature, the researchers had been studying Staphylococcus aureus. This is the bacteria which is responsible for so-called "superbug": MRSA. A strain of MRSA bacteria is not particularly virulent, but crucially, it is not susceptible to common antibiotics. This means that MRSA spreads quickly from crowded locations where residents have weaker immune systems, such as hospitals, before becoming endemic in the wider local community. In the UK, MRSA is a factor in hundreds of deaths a year. 

The researchers in question were investigating why S. aureus is not present in the noses of some people. They discovered that another bacteria, S. lugdunensis, was especially effective at wiping out its opposition, even MRSA. The researchers named the compound created and released by the S. lugdunensis "lugdunin".

In the animal testing stage, the researchers observed that the presence of lugdunin was successful in radically reducing and sometimes purging the infection. The researchers subsequently collected nasal swabs from 187 hospital patients, and found S. aureus on roughly a third of the swabs, and S. lugdunensis on up to 10 per cent of them. In accordance with previous results, samples that contained both species saw an 80 per cent decrease of the S. aureus population, in comparison to those without lugdunin.

Most notably, the in vitro (laboratory) testing phase provided evidence that the new discovery is also useful in eliminating other kinds of superbugs, none of which seemed to develop resistance to the new compound. The authors of the study hypothesised that lugdunin had evolved  “for the purpose of bacterial elimination in the human organism, implying that it is optimised for efficacy and tolerance at its physiological site of action". How it works, though, is not fully understood. 

The discovery of lugdunin as a potential new treatment is a breakthrough on its own. But that is not the end of the story. It holds implications for “a new concept of finding antibiotics”, according to Andreas Peschel, one of the bacteriologists behind the discovery.

The development of antibiotics has drastically slowed in recent years. In the last 50 years, only two new classes of this category of medication have been released to the market. This is due to the fact almost all antibiotics in use are derived from soil bacteria. By contrast, the new findings record the first occurrence of a strain of bacteria that exists within human bodies. Some researchers now suggest that the more hostile the environment to bacterial growth, the more likely it may be for novel antibiotics to be found. This could open up a new list of potential areas in which antibiotic research may be carried out.

When it comes to beating MRSA, there is hope that lugdunin will be our next great weapon. Peschel and his fellow collaborators are in talks with various companies about developing a medical treatment that uses lugdunin.

Meanwhile, in September 2016, the United Nations committed itself to opposing the spread of antibiotic resistance. Of the many points to which the UN signatories have agreed, possibly the most significant is their commitment to “encourage innovative ways to develop new antibiotics”. 

The initiative has the scope to achieve a lot, or dissolve into box ticking exercise. The discovery of lugdunin may well be the spark that drives it forward. Nothing to sniff about that. 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman