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Physical Time and Its Measurement

The accurate measurement of time by establishing accurate time standards poses difficult technological problems. In prehistory, humans recognized the alternation of day and night, the phases of the moon, and the succession of the seasons; from these cycles, they developed the day, month, and year as the corresponding units of time. With the development of primitive clocks and systematic astronomical observations, the day was divided into hours, minutes, and seconds.

Any measurement of time is ultimately based on counting the cycles of some regularly recurring phenomenon and accurately measuring fractions of that cycle. The earth rotates on its axis at a very nearly constant rate, and the angular positions of celestial bodies can be determined with great precision. Therefore, astronomical observations provide an almost ideal method of measuring time. The true period of rotation of the earth, that with respect to the fixed stars, defines the sidereal day, which is the basis of sidereal time. All sidereal days are equal. The period of rotation of the earth with respect to the sun (i.e., the interval between successive high noons) is the solar day, which is the basis for solar time. Because of the earth's motion in its orbit around the sun, the sun appears to move eastward against the fixed stars, and the earth must make slightly more than one complete rotation to bring the sun back to the observer's meridian. (The meridian is the great circle on the celestial sphere running through the north celestial pole and the observer's zenith; the passage of the sun across the meridian marks high noon.) But the earth's orbital motion is not uniform, and the plane of the orbit is inclined to the celestial equator by 231/2°. Hence the eastward motion of the sun against the stars is not uniform and the length of the true solar day varies seasonally, but on the average is four minutes longer than the sidereal day. True solar time, as measured by a sundial, does not move at a constant rate. Therefore the mean solar day, with a length equal to the annual average of the actual solar day, was introduced as the basis of mean solar time.

Mean solar time does move at a constant rate and is the basis for the civil time kept by clocks. Actually, the earth's rotation is being slightly braked by tidal and other effects so that even mean solar time is not strictly uniform. The law of gravitation allows prediction of the moon's position in its orbit at a given time; inversely, the exact position of the moon provides a kind of clock that is not running down. Time calculated from the moon's position is called ephemeris time and moves at a truly uniform rate. The accumulated difference between mean solar and ephemeris time since 1900 amounts to more than half a minute. However, the ultimate standard for time is provided by the natural frequencies of vibration of atoms and molecules. Atomic clocks, based on masers and lasers, lose only about three milliseconds over a thousand years. See standard time; universal time.

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

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