Units of time: From the flick to the jiffy


By: Harriet Cook

On 22nd January 2018 Facebook announced that they were launching Flicks, a flick being 'a unit of time, slightly larger than a nanosecond that exactly subdivides media frame rates and sampling frequencies'. News sites across the world picked up on the story and published it under headings ranging from 'Facebook invents new unit of time called a flick' (BBC) to 'Facebook Has Coined a New Unit of Time Called "the Flick"' (Futurism).

On the Oculus VR GitHub page a flick is defined as 1/705600000 of a second and is the smallest time unit which is larger than a nanosecond. Facebook include 'frame-tick' in brackets after the initial appearance of the word 'flick' which implies that 'flick' is some kind of contraction of these words. Some Twitter users (like @TransientMotion) have asked why the unit of time isn't called a 'frick', but Facebook are yet to reply to these tweets. To find out more about the motivation behind the flick, go to the Oculus VR GitHub page here.

If you are interested in learning more about the maths behind a flick, take a look at this video from Mind Your Decisions on YouTube:

Given that Facebook's 'invention' of a new unit of time has been so prominent in the news over the past week, we decided to look at some of the different units of time we use, what exactly they mean and how their popular use differs from their scientific application in some cases:

  • The second. This is the base unit for time in the International System of Units and is 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 cesium 133 atom'. For more about the historical development of the second, see this site. The general consensus online seems to be that a second is called a second because it is the second division of an hour by 60, the first being a minute - click here for more details.
  • The jiffy. While we might be most accustomed to people speaking about jiffy bags or saying they'll be back 'in a jiffy', the jiffy is also a unit of time. Its exact measurement is different depending on whether you are working in the field of physics or electronics. In astro and quantum physics a jiffy is the time it takes for light to travel one fermi in a vacuum (see here), while in electronics it is the time between alternating power cycles (see here). For more about the history of the jiffy and how the name was first applied by the chemist Gilbert Newton to define the time it took for light to travel one centimetre in a vacuum, see this article on TodayIFoundOut.com.
  • The yottasecond. Interestingly there are units of time far bigger than the second that also include second in their name. This unit of time, for example, is equivalent to about 32 quadrillion years (see here)!

For a full list of different units of time, see this page on Wikipedia which as of 25th January 2018 still does not include the flick.

Back to blog