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The Daily Mail Gets It Right?

Skepchick

Rebecca Watson

August 31, 2011

On July 11, 2011, The Daily Mail published an article titled Mount Etna eruption closes airports and ‘knocks clocks 15 minutes fast.’ Nearly half those words are correct, resulting in an accuracy The Daily Mail headline writers haven’t achieved since their 2004 effort, Coffee may or may not make you healthier/give you cancer.

Mount Etna is an active volcano located on Sicily that has erupted several times this year. An eruption in May was particularly impressive, and was soon followed by another smaller eruption in July. Both eruptions grounded flights due to the ash plume, but it was the May eruption that was rumored to have caused some temporal anomaly, as reported in this Italian newspaper. The Daily Mail seems to imply it was the July eruption, but as we’ll see, that’s the least of their sins in this particular lump of journalistic gold.

"Bemused Sicilians, meanwhile, were quick to blame the volcano after thousands noticed that their clocks were running 15 minutes fast," The Daily Mail reported. "The fast forward time keeping has affected a wide spectrum of digital clocks and watches—from computers through to alarm clocks.”

Sicilians were accidentally showing up at work early, which is apparently an unusual and rather horrific occurrence in that part of the world. (In related news, I believe I may be part Sicilian.) And what could have possibly caused such a phenomenon? Our intrepid reporters have done their homework:

"As well as Etna’s volcanic activity, users have so far blamed aliens, poltergeists, solar explosions and electrical disturbances caused by underwater cables."

I realized that there might be more to this story, so I decided to do a little research of my own. My first step was figuring out how clocks work, which is one of those bits of knowledge that I could have sworn I already knew. I mean, I could figure out how pendulums and gears work, but I immediately realized that to me, electricity was indistinguishable from magic. Luckily, there is the Internet.

Here’s the quick version: digital clocks that plug into the wall use the frequency of the power lines to keep time. In the US, that’s 60-hertz (Hz) and in Europe, where our story takes place, it’s 50 Hz. There are counters inside the clock that divide the 50 Hz base into 1 Hz segments. Each hertz is an oscillation per second, so one hertz is what you use to count each second. Easy enough.

So how could you mess with that, and could a volcano do it? Well, if you change the frequency, you would effectively speed up or slow down an electric clock. That’s what’s happening when you use the buttons on your clock to set the time– it just lets a higher frequency in to make the time speed up. But in this case we’re not talking about speeding up the time on one clock; we’re talking about speeding up the time on all the clocks in an area, and to do that you’d need to change the frequency of the power lines that are feeding electricity to the clocks.

And is that even possible? Well, yes! A bit of reading on the subject informed me that the frequency coming out of power plants isn’t always exactly 50 or 60 Hz–it’s constantly fluctuating ever so slightly. But ever since the invention of the electric clock, grid operators have regulated the daily frequency so that at the end of the day, it averages out to the right frequency and therefore the right time, give or take a few seconds. The larger networks are incredibly precise: the synchronous grid of Continental Europe is the largest grid in the world, and it recalibrates its frequency every morning at 8:00 at a control center in Switzerland. You can actually see a real-time readout of the frequency that all of Europe, including Italy, is getting.

Considering all that, I figured that all the clocks in mainland Italy must be rather precise at all times, making this story improbable to say the least. But I realized that Sicily isn’t actually on the mainland—it’s an island off the coast of Italy.

“Aha!” I thought triumphantly. Yes, sometimes I think triumphantly. “The island probably has its own power grid, and smaller grids are sometimes not as precise as the larger ones!”

It turns out that Sicily does get its power from the same grid, via one underwater cable that comes from the mainland.

At that point I was nearly ready to declare the Case of the Early Workers as some mass delusion on the part of Sicilians. My thinking was that a few people happened to turn up at work early one day and blamed their wonky clocks. Word spread, and more and more people noticed that their clocks were wrong and assumed it all must have a common cause, when really they were all just bad at setting clocks properly. But before I fell back on this theory, I wanted to be sure that the one cable that provides power to Sicily didn’t have anything go wrong around the time of the volcano eruption.

And you know what? It did.

It turns out that for about twenty days in May, the cable was disconnected from the mainland to undergo some maintenance, and during that time Sicily was being powered entirely by hydroelectricity. Hydroelectric power has more fluctuations in frequency, and the smaller grid wasn’t able to self-correct as quickly as the larger grid, so for awhile any electric clock was going to be off.

Finally, I found an article in an Italian newspaper that confirmed that this was, in fact, the cause of the fast clocks. Note the date of publication: June 9th, a full month before The Daily Mail posted their article.

So once again we find that The Daily Mail is wrong about nearly everything: no watches were affected (since those run on batteries and thus have a different method of keeping time) and the fast clocks were not caused by the volcano, or aliens, or poltergeists, or solar explosions. But hey, credit where credit is due: you could say that the problem was "electrical disturbances caused by underwater cables," though maybe not in the sense they implied.

Rebecca Watson

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Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.