Consumer Electronics & Appliance News, Reviews & Information.

29
Feb 12

What’s the deal with Leap Year?


In this topsy turvy world of consumer electronics and appliances, sometimes the smaller mysteries of life go unnoticed.

No longer.

So, what’s the deal with this Leap Year thing-a-ma-bob? You may be yearning to say, “Umm, Vann’s, it’s because a 365 day year is short a quarter of a day. Leap years compensate by adding the 29th to February every four years.”

Oh! Is that so, Professor Earth Science? Well, prepare to put on your angriest vest and demand an apology from your grade school teacher for your extreme levels of bamboozlement. Seriously, your understanding of Leap Year is about to be blown away — decimated to be reconstructed anew, dazzling and awesome in its magnitude. Seriously. Or, at least, your understanding will be mildly adjusted.

Please note: Vests do not necessarily imply anger. Late February is chilly, and vests help insulate your core. Also, the explanation of Leap Year stated above is mostly correct.

Is a year 365.25 days? Nope. More like 365.2425. That’s almost 11 minutes less than you may have thought. Sheesh. The time gap is pretty important. Think about it: after hundreds of years, those 11 minutes start to add up. But, to get to the epic solution of the Leap Year conundrum, we’ve got to travel back over two thousand years.

Our adventure begins in ancient Rome. Water flowed in the aqueducts, frescoes were on the walls, and the Roman calendar kept track of the date. It was a lunisolar calendar, meaning it was based on the cycles of the moon. In fact, the new moon was called calends, and this is where we get the word ‘calendar.’ Years were 355 days: 12 months of 29 or 30 days, about the length of each new moon. To compensate for the inevitable shift of the seasonal date, the pontifices, high priest guys, would occasionally add a month of 22 or 23 days after February. Though this system may seem goofy to our sensibilities, it should have worked. Thing is, it didn’t.

Pontifices were, you know, corrupt sometimes. Say a pontiff’s got a good buddy in office who’s term is about up. Suddenly, it’s a leap year! Pontifices didn’t like a magistrate? Guess what, not a leap year. It didn’t take too long before the Roman calendar was more of a suggestion, an estimation of the date. Romans referred to this as “the years of confusion.”

The Smug mug of Julius Caesar (image from realitypod.com)

Enter Julius Caesar. Ever wonder if Caesar rose to power fueled by a desire to fix a monstrously wacky calendar? That’s really unlikely, but, by golly, he sure did fix it in 46 BC.

Caesar rounded up the best the philosophers, astronomers, and mathematicians a negative first century fella could shake a stick at. They combined the fixed year used in Egypt with the Roman months to create the Julian calendar. Caesar distributed an extra ten days among the months to pump up the year to 365 days. His crack team were worth their ancient spit too. Realizing there was a chunk of a day left over, they advised Caesar to add an extra day to the calendar every four years. Goodbye Leap Month; hello Leap Day. Needless to say, 45 BC was a big year for calendar enthusiasts.

Pope by day, Calendar fixer also by day (image from webexhibits.org)

Yet, all was not well. Those dang 11 minutes started to pile up. By 1582, the date was off by ten days. Pope Gregory XIII was not amused. You see, Easter coincides with the vernal equinox, when the Earth’s axis is on an even keel. So, over the last millennium and some serious change, Easter had slipped backwards to the 11th of March. This Gregory would not abide.

The solution wasn’t too difficult. First off, they skipped over ten days, the 5th to the 14th of October, to make up for 13 centuries of lost time. Legend says Pope Gregory chose those dates to dodge a friend’s birthday party; reliable research says this legend was completely fabricated by a Vann’s blogger.

Next, Leap Years would be every fourth year except for centurial years not divisible by 400. Sound confusing? Let’s break it down: 1200, 1600, and 2000 were leap years; 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not.

Presto, the Gregorian Calendar! We still use it today, and those 11 minutes are no longer a problem. And that, my fellow calendrical explorers, is the saga of Leap Year. Once your mind is done exploding with bewilderment, rest assured that you will not be the one looking foolish come March 1st, 2100.



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