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A Biography of the Second

A few blinks of an eye. The time it takes a hummingbird to flap its wings 80 times. For a photon of light to travel from Los Angeles to New York and back almost 40-fold. The second has been there since the literal dawn of time, if one exists. But what defines the second? Like a pop star constantly reinventing themselves, the second has undertaken a myriad of identities, first defined as a brief moment in the daily rotation of the earth around its axis.

Today, the second is officially defined by over 9 billion oscillations of a cesium atom. Although it has changed costumes, its astronomical roots still ground the second. These definitions, these identities are projected onto it by an ever-curious, ever-demanding fan base. These fans are, of course, us – humans living in a complex, evolving society. They have been priests, farmers, scientists. Now, whatever our relationship is to one tick of the second hand, today we are beholden to this new, atomic second far beyond matters of time. Our entire technological infrastructure, from airplanes to smartphones, televisions to stock markets, driving directions to space research, would crumble without the atomic second and the 21st century horologists that build the timekeepers of the modern second: the atomic clock.

Jessie Hendricks
Written by
Jessie Hendricks

Jessie Hendricks spent time as an actor, science communicator, and content creator. She currently produces and hosts SCIENCED, a scicomm podcast for the SoCal Science Writing group, as well as serves on their membership committee. She has written and hosted many science videos on the YouTube channel Everyday Science, including parody science music videos and a series on the periodic table called #ElementADayInMay, as well as written and guest-hosted for other outlets such as Skybound Entertainment’s Gamma Ray TV. She got her start in science communication while producing citizen science outreach videos for the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center on harmful algal blooms. Her current science writing interests include science storytelling in the entertainment industry, science history, quantum entanglement, and shark immunology.

Jessie Hendricks Written by Jessie Hendricks