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second, abbr. sec or s, fundamental unit of time in all systems of measurement. In practical terms, the second is 1/60 of a minute, 1/3,600 of an hour, or 1/86,400 of a day. Since the length of the day varies, however, the second must be defined in more precise terms. For many years it was defined as 1/86,400 of the mean solar day (see solar time), thus eliminating seasonal variations. Because the rotation of the earth itself is not constant, the second was redefined (1956) in terms of ephemeris time (ET), which is calculated from the motions of celestial bodies in accordance with the laws of motion; 1 sec is 1/31,556,925.9747 of the length of the tropical year for 1900. In 1967 the second was redefined to be 9,192,631,770 periods of vibration of the radiation emitted at a specific wavelength by an atom of cesium-133.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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