Time is a strange thing. As Einstein said, it is a relative concept. He wasn't predicting a bizarre paradox to beset Future Europe in the year 2018, but he may as well have been.
For months, people in several European countries have encountered a strange wrinkle in time: clocks are telling them different things. While many timepieces are as infallible as ever, other clocks have been falling behind, second by second, ever since mid-January.
As of last week, this weird phenomenon accounted for a delay of close to 6 minutes. Not exactly a postponement to threaten the very fabric of the Universe… but a heck of a way to miss your morning bus.
As strange as this timely dilemma is, it's not a distortion of the space-time continuum that's to blame. It's us – or more specifically, it's politics. In this case, European politics.
But before we get into that, it's important to understand there are a number of ways clock keep time. In the olden days – and not-so-olden days – it was mechanical.
Digital clocks are different, and keep time in a few different ways.
Modern internet-connected devices like your smartphone or computer sync up with other clocks over the web, whereas standalone devices like digital watches or many battery-powered alarm clocks use a crystal oscillator.
But there's a whole range of other devices that get their sense of time from mains power, including ovens, alarms, heaters, and microwaves.
These sorts of clocks keep time by counting the number of oscillations in the alternating current they receive, which also powers them; in other words, the number of times the flow of electricity changes directions every second.
In the US, this is 60 times, or 60 Hz. In Europe, it's 50 Hz – or at least, it's supposed to be. And this is where politics comes into it.
The European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E), which runs the grid powering 25 separate European countries, disclosed recently that "frequency deviations" in power supply have been experienced across the network since mid-January.
This deviation isn't much, but it is noticeable (clearly).
Instead of delivering 50 Hz – which is what mains-powered European clocks expect to get if they're to keep accurate time – the European grid has averaged 49.996 Hz, which is enough of a disruption, over a couple of months, to make all these clocks lose almost 6 minutes.
Have you noticed your clock running late? ! The Continental European Power System is experiencing a continuous system #frequency deviation from the mean value of 50 Hz since mid-January 2018. Why is this happening? Read ENTSO-E press release: https://t.co/6oroH2haNW pic.twitter.com/LnQygS6kvg— ENTSO-E (@ENTSO_E) March 7, 2018
In this case, the shortfall was due to a disagreement between Serbia and Kosovo, over who was ultimately responsible for the upkeep of a Kosovan power plant (on paper, it appears to have been Serbia, but it's a complicated situation).
The good news is, according to ENTSO-E, the deviations affecting the average frequency in the synchronous area of Continental Europe have now ceased, although the network is still figuring out how to restore the missing energy (some 113 GWh in total) lost since January.
It's not clear how that will be done exactly, but the long and short of it is, as soon as Europeans reset their affected clocks, the oscillations should be purring along nice and regular now.