A light flashing once per second.

The second (symbol: s), is a unit of time. There are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 24 hours in a day. This tradition dates back to the Babylonian.

In science, a second is the time it takes for a caesium atom to vibrate 9,192,631,770 (around 9 billion) times. Scientists measure the second this way because the length of a day changes all the time. For example, when the dinosaurs lived, a day was about an hour shorter.[1] Vibrations of atoms on the other hand always take the same time. This atomic second is also called the SI second.

Metric prefixes are frequently combined with the word second to denote subdivisions of the second, e.g., the millisecond (one thousandth of a second) and nanosecond (one billionth of a second). Though SI prefixes may also be used to form multiples of the second (such as “kilosecond”, or one thousand seconds), such units are rarely used in practice. More commonly encountered, non-SI units of time such as the minute, hour, and day increase by multiples of 60 and 24 (rather than by powers of ten as in the SI system).

One heartbeat of an adult at rest, will last about one second.

International second

Under the International System of Units, the second is currently defined as the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom.[2] This definition refers to a caesium atom at rest at a temperature of 0 kelvins (−273.15 degrees Celsius; −459.67 degrees Fahrenheit) (absolute zero). The ground state is defined at zero magnetic field.[2] The second thus defined is equivalent to the ephemeris second.

The international standard symbol for a second is s (see ISO 31-1)

Equivalence to other units of time

1 international second is equal to:

  • 1/60 minute (1 minute is equal to 60 seconds)
  • 1/3,600 hour (1 hour is equal to 3,600 seconds)
  • 1/86,400 day (1 day, in the sense of non-SI units accepted for use with the International System of Units, is equal to 86,400 seconds)

There are 31,536,000 seconds in a common year, 31,622,400 seconds in a leap year, and 31,557,600 seconds in a Julian year

Historical origin

Originally, the second was known as a "second minute", meaning the second minute (i.e. small) division of an hour. The first division was known as a "prime minute" and is equivalent to the minute we know today. Third and fourth minutes were sometimes used in calculations.

The factor of 60 comes from the Babylonians who used a sexagesimal (base-60) numeral system. However, the Babylonians did not subdivide their time units sexagesimally (except for the day). The hour had been defined by the ancient Egyptians as either 1/12 of daytime or 1/12 of nighttime, hence both varied with the seasons. Greek astronomers, for example Hipparchus and Ptolemy, defined the hour as 1/24 of a mean solar day. Sexagesimally subdividing this mean solar hour made the second 1/86,400 of a mean solar day.[3]

SI multiples

SI prefixes are commonly used for times shorter than one second, but rarely for multiples of a second. Instead, certain non-SI units are permitted for use in SI: minutes, hours, days, and in astronomy Julian days.[4]

SI multiples for second (s)
Submultiples Multiples
Value SI symbol Name Value SI symbol Name Human-readable
10−1 s ds decisecond 101 s das decasecond 10 seconds
10−2 s cs centisecond 102 s hs hectosecond 1 minute 40 seconds
10−3 s ms millisecond 103 s ks kilosecond 16 minutes 40 seconds
10−6 s µs microsecond 106 s Ms megasecond 11.6 days
10−9 s ns nanosecond 109 s Gs gigasecond 31.7 years
10−12 s ps picosecond 1012 s Ts terasecond 31,700 years
10−15 s fs femtosecond 1015 s Ps petasecond 31.7 million years
10−18 s as attosecond 1018 s Es exasecond 31.7 billion years
10−21 s zs zeptosecond 1021 s Zs zettasecond 31.7 trillion years
10−24 s ys yoctosecond 1024 s Ys yottasecond 31.7 quadrillion years

Greek time periods, for example the mean synodic month, were usually specified quite precisely because they were calculated from carefully selected eclipses separated by hundreds of years—individual mean synodic months and similar time periods cannot be measured. Nevertheless, with the development of pendulum clocks keeping mean time (as opposed to the apparent time displayed by sundials), the second became measurable. The seconds pendulum was proposed as a unit of length as early as 1660 by the Royal Society of London. The duration of a beat or half period (one swing, not back and forth) of a pendulum one metre in length on the Earth's surface is approximately one second.[5]

In 1956 the second was defined in terms of the period of revolution of the Earth around the Sun for a particular epoch, because by then it had become recognized that the Earth's rotation on its own axis was not sufficiently uniform as a standard of time. The Earth's motion was described in Newcomb's Tables of the Sun, which provides a formula for the motion of the Sun at the epoch 1900 based on astronomical observations made between 1750 and 1892.[2] The second thus defined is

the fraction 1/31,556,925.9747 of the tropical year for 1900 January 0 at 12 hours ephemeris time.[2]

This definition was ratified by the Eleventh General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1960. The tropical year in the definition was not measured, but calculated from a formula describing a tropical year which decreased linearly over time, hence the curious reference to a specific instantaneous tropical year. Because this second was the independent variable of time used in ephemerides of the Sun and Moon during most of the twentieth century (Newcomb's Tables of the Sun were used from 1900 through 1983, and Brown's Tables of the Moon were used from 1920 through 1983), it was called the ephemeris second.[2]

When atomic clocks were made, they became the basis of the definition of the second, rather than the revolution of the Earth around the Sun.

Following several years of work, Louis Essen from the National Physical Laboratory (Teddington, England) and William Markowitz from the United States Naval Observatory (USNO) determined the relationship between the hyperfine transition frequency of the caesium atom and the ephemeris second.[2] Using a common-view measurement method based on the received signals from radio station WWV,[6] they determined the orbital motion of the Moon about the Earth, from which the apparent motion of the Sun could be inferred, in terms of time as measured by an atomic clock. As a result, in 1967 the Thirteenth General Conference on Weights and Measures defined the second of atomic time in the International System of Units (SI) as

the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom.[2]

The ground state is defined at zero magnetic field. The second thus defined is equivalent to the ephemeris second.[2]

The definition of the second was later refined at the 1997 meeting of the BIPM to include the statement

This definition refers to a caesium atom at rest at a temperature of 0 K.

The revised definition would seem to imply that the ideal atomic clock would contain a single caesium atom at rest emitting a single frequency. In practice, however, the definition means that high-precision realizations of the second should compensate for the effects of the ambient temperature (black-body radiation) within which atomic clocks operate and extrapolate accordingly to the value of the second as defined above.

The second in role-playing games

Sometimes in role-playing games a second is used to refer to a small period of time or a single turn of combat. It is used as a standard moment of time, and does not necessarily refer to a real second, and could be shorter or longer depending on the scenario.


  • Until modern times, degrees and hours were divided successively by 60 in pars minuta prima, pars minuta secunda, pars minuta tertia and so on. This evolved to the modern minute and second, but for smaller divisions we follow now the decimal division. In some languages, dictionaries still keep the word for third for 1/60 of a second, for example Polish (tercja) and Arabic (ثالثة).

Related pages


  1. "How many hours were in a dinosaur's day?". 2012-11-28. Retrieved 2021-03-25.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 "Leap Seconds". Time Service Department, United States Naval Observatory. Archived from the original on 2012-05-27. Retrieved 2006-12-31.
  3. "Definition of MEAN SOLAR DAY". Retrieved 2020-08-12.
  4. International Astronomical Union. "Recommendations Concerning Units". Archived from the original on February 16, 2007. Retrieved February 18, 2007. Reprinted from the "IAU Style Manual" by G.A. Wilkinson, Comm. 5, in IAU Transactions XXB (1987).
  5. The seconds pendulum
  6. Leschiutta, Sigfrido (2005). "The definition of the 'atomic' second". Metrologia. 42 (3): S10–S19. Bibcode:2005Metro..42S..10L. doi:10.1088/0026-1394/42/3/S03. S2CID 123513513.

Other websites