MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
This weekend, most of us in the U.S. will set our clocks ahead one hour, which seems an opportune moment to consider the wrinkle in time Europeans are living through. In Europe, since January, electric clocks have been running slow - bit by bit, day by day, falling behind. Daniel Oberhaus has written about the slow clocks of Europe for Motherboard. Welcome.
DANIEL OBERHAUS: Hi.
KELLY: Just how slow are the clocks of Europe running?
OBERHAUS: They're almost six minutes behind now.
KELLY: All right, let's dive into the problem, which I gather is not technical. It's actually political. Explain what's going on.
OBERHAUS: It goes back actually quite a few years. Kosovo split from Serbia following a few years of war. Kosovo is majority Albanian. But in northern Kosovo, it's actually majority Serb. And so in these four municipalities in northern Kosovo, they've been using electricity, but they haven't actually been paying the Kosovo government for this. Things kind of came to a head in December when Kosovo said it would stop paying for these municipalities' electricity. And shortly thereafter, the clocks in Europe actually started deviating from their normal time.
KELLY: So without getting too technical, just explain how the time on somebody's clock is connected with the electric grid across Europe.
OBERHAUS: All right, so when electricity is getting pushed onto the grid in Europe, devices that are connected to the grid are going to see oscillations in the voltages that are getting fed into the device.
OBERHAUS: So basically 50 times per second, this device is going to see a voltage peak and a voltage minimum. And so it uses this oscillation in order to keep track of time. What happened in Europe is this cycle deviated by one one-hundredth of a hertz.
KELLY: Oh, that's tiny.
OBERHAUS: Very tiny - which doesn't seem like a lot. But over the last month and a half, that actually adds up to quite a bit.
KELLY: Adds up to just short of six minutes, it sounds like.
OBERHAUS: Yep, it was 344 seconds, just under six minutes.
KELLY: Well, and as we noted, tensions between Kosovo and Serbia are deep-seated and long-standing. Is there any sign that this feud may be coming to an end and that clocks will start running on time again?
OBERHAUS: As of yesterday, Kosovo agreed to temporarily put 1 million euros towards the electric bills of these four municipalities in northern Kosovo. As for the clocks in Europe, they're going to take a few weeks to actually get back on time. European residents can set them themselves if they feel like it. Or they can just leave them plugged in. And over the next few weeks, they'll actually reorient themselves to the correct time.
KELLY: OK, so eventually this will - if you just do nothing, your clock will resume the correct time.
OBERHAUS: That's correct. If you just leave it plugged in, it'll eventually catch up with the cycles as it's supposed to. Or if you don't want to wait a few weeks for it to do that, you're able to just manually reset it yourself.
KELLY: And it sounds like, in the meantime, people in Barcelona and Brussels and Berlin should be relying maybe on an old-fashioned watch.
OBERHAUS: Absolutely, yeah. Or a quartz-based electric clock can tell the time without any sort of - relying on any sort of political problems.
KELLY: Daniel Oberhaus, thanks very much.
OBERHAUS: Thank you.
KELLY: Daniel Oberhaus, he writes for Motherboard.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY TIME")
ENYA: (Singing) Who can say where the road goes, where the day flows? Only time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.