Libretto: The Last Second

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

(Image credit: Howard I. Cannon)

The mini-opera that premiered as part of the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony

Story and words by Marc Abrahams
Music by Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti, Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, and Frédéric François Chopin
Directed by Maria Ferrante and Robin Abrahams
Props by Eric Workman
Piano: Patrick Yacono
Accordion: Thomas Michel

Original cast
Maria Ferrante: The TIMEKEEPER, the scientist who runs the scientific office that controls the world’s master time clock (that office, among other things, administers leap seconds)

Scott Taylor: The REPORTER who comes into this wanting to write a news report about the leap second

The Clock Chorus: Ted Sharpe (chorus wrangler), Ellen Friend, Abby Schiff, Jean Cummings, Sue Wellington, Daniel Rosenberg, Kevin McCaughey, Michael Skuhersky, John Jarcho, Fred Tsai, Erika Hutchinson, Jan Hadland, Kettly Benoit

Innocent Bystanders (in Act 3): Nobel laureates Dudley Herschbach, Rich Roberts, Eric Maskin, Roy Glauber Special Time Micro-Lecturers: Jenny Hoffman, John Lowe, Eric Maskin

Special Time Micro-Lecture (preceding Act 1)

Harvard physics professor Jenny Hoffman explains, in one minute prior to Act 1, what a microsecond is. (Image credit: Mike Benveniste)

Lecturer: Jenny Hoffman (Harvard Physics professor)

Topic: “What’s a leap second, and why do we create them?”

Well, we all know that one Earth day is the time it takes for the Earth to rotate once around its own axis with respect to the sun. The 60 seconds per minute, 60 seconds per hour, and 24 hours per day. One Earth second should one part of an 86,400-second day. But the situation is not so simple, because the length of one Earth day varies periodically by up to 20 seconds during the year, due to the ellipticity of the Earth’s orbit and the tilt of its axis. So the atomic physicists decided to tidy things up in 1958, by redefining one second as 9192631770 hyperfine oscillations of a cesium atom, a so-called “chronometer” that is accurate to one second in 300 million years. But for all its accuracy, we now have an even bigger problem. The rotation period of the Earth varies randomly on an even longer time scale, due to tides, weather, motion of the Earth’s crust, and other unpredictable factors. The Earth’s rotation has slowed down since the cesium definition in 1958, so an average Earth day is now longer than 86,400 cesium seconds. Radio broadcasts and cellular phones are all synchronized to cesium seconds, which will eventually drift away from the Earth day, so without intervention, your favorite evening TV show could eventually be taking place in the middle of your work day. Luckily, scientists are carefully tracking the Earth’s rotational speed so they can step in to insert an extra cesium second when needed, typically once every few years. Since the definition of the cesium second, 26 leap seconds have been inserted, and the next one is due at midnight on December 31, 2016, so you all can look forward to one extra second to enjoy your New Year’s Eve beverages.

ACT 1

[MUSIC: “Chacun le sait” from “La Fille du Régiment” by Donizetti]

REPORTER:
You got a sec? I need to check: What is the purpose of the leap second?
Why, why on earth? What is it worth? But! Tell me first, how is the second reckoned?

TIMEKEEPER:
When time goes bad That’s what we add.
Just give me a min — I’ll make your head spin!
Each leap second will, Well, make time stand still….
When the moon and the earth waltz around in space,
Well, the seas on the Earth cannot quite keep pace.
So the spin of the Earth slightly slows,
And it can’t keep up with our clocks,
So we do something unorthodox

(Image credit: Alexey Eliseev)

CLOCKS:
What the hell? What the hell? We are slightly off.
Like a burnt caramel, Like a sneeze or cough.
Double TICK, Double TOCK, if we must.
A-a-add a second to adjust! A-a-add a second to adjust!
TICK. Second. TOCK. Second.
ONE OF THE CLOCKS: Precisely! Precisely!

TIMEKEEPER:
Why, yes, I could… OH, YES, I COULD!
Let me speculate / ’cause you’ve beckoned.
What if WE knew — JUST me and you.
That there would be a SECRET extra second.
What could we do, secretly, we two — Do with all that time?
Here’s a paradigm: We could turn to crime….
Trading stocks happens now at a fur’ious rate.
In a sec, we can vastly manipulate
All the stocks on the New York Exchange.
No one will know that we’ve cleaned their clocks —
That we’ve done something unorthodox!

CLOCK CHORUS:
What the hell? What the hell? We are slightly off.
Like a burnt caramel, Like a sneeze or cough.
Double TICK, Double TOCK, if we must.
A-a-add a second to adjust! A-a-add a second to adjust!
After TICK, after TOCK, add an ex-tra TICK… also an extra TOCK!

Special Time Micro-Lecture (preceding Act 2)

Lecturer: John Lowe (NIST time scientist)

Topic: “How scientists decide when to create a leap second, and how we do it”

Thank you, thank you very much. Yes, I am a time scientist, So let me prepare. I’m a metrologist, specifically, no, nothing about weather, I measure things. How much is the kilogram, how long is the meter, how bright is the light. More specifically, I am a horologist. No, not with a ‘w’. H-O-R-ologist. I measure time, how long is a second, the accumulation of that, what time of day it is. The international Earth rotation surface has astronomers from around the world that constantly observe our true position. And when they decide it is time, they add a leap second. A horologist, that’s me, are the ones who implement this. Now let me explain to you how we do this in great detail. Imagine, if you will, it is the twenty-third hour of universal coordinated time, on the day of a leap second. It is the fifty-ninth minute, the fifty-fifth second, fifty-six, fifty-seven, fifty-eight, fifty-nine, sixty, zero, one, two… see what I did there? I just threw an extra second in. Thank you for having me. No wait, wait, wait! There’s more to it. By definition, the second is defined by, as was explained to you earlier, the atomic clock. Now if we had decided that the atomic clock had a few more hertz in its definition, we would actually have leap seconds that are negative. So far, we have only had positive leap seconds. Let me explain in great detail how we would handle a negative leap second. Imagine if you will, it is the twenty-third hour, Universal coordinated time, the fifty-ninth minute, fifty-fifth second, fifty-six, fifty-seven, fifty-eight, zero, one, two, three… that’s how we do it. I believe now it is time to enjoy the second act.

ACT 2

[MUSIC: “Danse Macabre” by Saint-Saëns]

CLOCKS: TOCK, TICK, TOCK, TICK… [etc.]

TIMEKEEPER: Contemplate a twist to the special software for manipulating the master clock…

REPORTER: Doing something strange to the special software for manipulating the master clock?

(Image credit: Alexey Eliseev)

TIMEKEEPER:
The scientific entity that o-oversees the OFFICIAL time
Is chaired by — guess who? — little me, who o-overlooks superficial crime.

REPORTER:
Whatcha gonna do? How ya gonna do it? Whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do?

TIMEKEEPER: What I gonna do!

REPORTER: Whatcha gonna do? How ya gonna do it? Whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do?

TIMEKEEPER:
When the moment comes / When I add a leap / Second to the clock /
I will add in TWO / Seconds to the clock / Two, two, two, TWO!

REPORTER: TWO, two, two, TWO!!

BOTH: Two, two, two, two, two-oo-oo-oo!
Add a second sec—
Add a second second second sec!
Add a second sec—
Add a second second second sec!
Money, money, money!
Make a trillion bucks. Double trillion bucks. Triple trillion bucks. Trillion trillion bucks.
And all in just — in just a second.

REPORTER:
What you gonna do, WITH a second second? What you gonna do, WITH a second sec?
What you gonna do, WITH a second second? What you gonna do, WITH a second sec?

TIMEKEEPER:
Make a million trades, in financial markets. We will sneakily, secretly invest.
Make a million trades, in financial markets. Nobody at all will have even guessed.

CLOCKS (to each other, unhappily):
We clocks — we clocks were always told / That time waits for no one…

REPORTER (to TIMEKEEPER): You are so bold!

(Image credit: Howard I. Cannon)

CLOCKS: That no one could manipulate…

TIMEKEEPER: Hey, let’s beat the clock.
Let’s go “SECOND-rate”!
When no one knows the things we know,
When no one gives a second thought,
We will buy and sell — Seeing how to tell
What the price will be / ’Fore the others see
Anything at all. That’s the second which… will make us rich.

TIMEKEEPER: Do ya got the time?

REPORTER: Yeh, I got the time!

BOTH: It’s time! It’s time! It’s time!

TIMEKEEPER: It’s time to make the time!

REPORTER: Time to make the time!

TIMEKEEPER: Get set!

REPORTER: I’m set!

TIMEKEEPER: Count down!

REPORTER: Count down!
Tee minus ten!
Tee minus nine!
Tee minus eight!

CLOCKS:
TOCK, TICK.
TOCK, TICK.
TOCK, TICK.
TOCK, TICK.
TOCK, TICK.
TOCK, TICK.
TOCK… TOCK… TOCK… TOCK… TOCK… TOCK… TOCK… TOCK… TOCK…

Special Time Micro-Lecture (preceding 3)

Lecturer: Eric Maskin (Nobel laureate in Economics)

Nobel laureate in Economics Eric Maskin explains, in one minute prior to Act 3, the financial gains an unscrupulous person could make during a single second. (Image credit: Howard I. Cannon)

Topic: “The kinds of financial mischief that could be done during an unannounced extra leap second”

How much money can a stock market trader make with an extra second of time? A lot. The secret is front-running: Getting in front of other traders, buying the stock they were about to buy, and then selling it to them for a profit. Suppose you see that I want to buy a million shares of Ig Nobel Enterprises, who wouldn’t? Well that’s a large order, and we both know that it is going to drive up the
stock price. But the second before my order clears, you jump in and buy it up yourself. You pay x dollars per share, and immediately turn around and sell the shares to me for x plus one. You’ve just made a big profit, and this is only one transaction. A second is plenty of time to make many many others. They say a trillion dollars isn’t what it used  to be. Even US dollars. But you’re not having second thoughts.

ACT 3, PART 1

[MUSIC: “Promenade” from “Pictures At an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky]

CLOCKS:
Time has gone very wrong.
Very wrong! Very wrong!
TOCK! TOCK! TICK! Yuck!
Time has gone very wrong.
Time has stopped. Time has gotten stuck.
Let us TOCK about TICK, TICKing off the whole damn world.
Let us TOCK about how time got twisted, and how time has got curled.
Each second, each and every second, each and ev’ry one, on the face of ev’ry timepiece in the world, has gotten stuck. Got stuck. Got stuck.
Time is standing still, standing still.
All the airplanes — ev’ry plane in the air, ev’rywhere — will not ever land. But then they will.
Also, many of the children in school are enraged. That’s cause this day will not end.
What’s more, almost all the teachers are even more distraught.
Also, the GPS system has stopped.

ACT 3, PART 2

[MUSIC: ”Grande Valse Brillante” in E flat major by Chopin]

[THE TIMEKEEPER IS ALONE. ASLEEP, SITTING ON A CHAIR.]

CLOCKS:
DING! DING-A-DING! DING-A-DING! DING-A-DING!
DING-A!
Time to awake! Time to awake! Time to awake!
You’re dreaming! Dreaming! It’s just a bad dream!
Time to awake! Time to awake! Time to awake!
You’re dreaming! Dreaming! It’s just a bad dream!
Time… time…
Time to wake up!
You’re dreaming! You’re dreaming! It’s just a bad dream!
DING! DING-A-DING-A!
Nothing’s wrong! Nothing’s wrong! No-o-othing!
’Twas only a dream. No one thinks you’re a demon.
Nothing’s wrong! Nothing’s wrong! No-o-othing!
’Twas only a dream. No one thinks you’re a demon.

(Image credit: Howard I. Cannon)

ACT 3, PART 3

[MUSIC: ”Promenade” from “Pictures At an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky]

CLOCKS:
DOORBELL! DOORBELL! DOORBELL! DOORBELL!
DOORBELL! Open the door! Get the door! Some one is here!

[REPORTER enters.]

REPORTER:
Hey, wake up. Don’t pretend, don’t pretend that nothing changed.
It’s YOUR fault
Ev’ry clock in the world is disarranged.
You got fired from your job. You got fired. But more pointedly,
A million people hate your guts, million people hate your guts and want you dead.

TIMEKEEPER: I’m sorry. I am sorry.

REPORTER: I am sorry, too.

BOTH: We are so-o-o-ry.

TIMEKEEPER: But now…

REPORTER: But now? What to do? But now? What to do?

TIMEKEEPER: Got a second? Got a second? Got a second?

REPORTER: We have time on our hands.

CLOCKS: TOCK TOCK

BOTH: What a perfect time for crime! Time for crime!

CLOCKS: TOCK TOCK

BOTH: Time for crime!

CLOCKS: TOCK TOCK

BOTH:
Some day we will repent, will repent some year, some time!
But right now is the perfect time for crime!

ACT 3, PART 4

[MUSIC: ”Grande Valse Brillante” in E flat major by Chopin]

TIMEKEEPER: ’Kay. Okay. Okay! OKAY!

EVERYONE:
Time! Time! Time for crime! Time! Time! Time! Time!
Time! Time! Time for crime!
TOCK! TOCK! TOCK! CRIME! TOCK! TOCK! TOCK! TIME!
CRIME! TIME! CRIME! TIME! CRIME! TIME! CRIME!

(Image credit: Alexey Eliseev)

[ed.note: You can see this libretto performed in the video for the 2016 Ig Nobel Ceremony)

_____________________

This article is republished with permission from the November-December 2016 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.


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