Leap Day: When There Are Too Few Hours in the Year

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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

It is here, in all its quadrennial springiness, like a cartoon Slinky boinging into the wall calendar.

Ah, Leap Day. It's so topsy-turvy, sounding too whimsical for its placement at the end of what everyone knows is the cruddiest month of the year. It's the day when, oh, anything can happen, like women proposing to men, like pirates turning 5 when they think they're turning 21 ( c'mon-- Gilbert and Sullivan! "Pirates of Penzance"! Whistle! Trill!).

It is a curly, twisty day hanging off the only month that divides neatly into four weeks, and it is there to tidy up time. The Romans were the first to get that Earth's rotation and its revolution didn't quite match up; it was taking a smidge more than 365 days to circumnavigate the sun. They gave the calendar an occasional breath in the form of Feb. 29, to set things right again. (February deserved the extra time, what with Caesar Augustus stealing a day, according to legend, to make August longer.)

There are all kinds of reasons to mess with the calendar. In centuries past these reasons have included, but were not limited to: farmers, the decimal system, Napoleon Bonaparte and Kingsford charcoal briquettes, instrumental to the successful lobby to extend daylight saving time in the name of summer barbecues.

Current proposals for calendar reform are all about common sense. The most orderly among us need to rectify this ridiculous system in which 30 days hath September and nobody knows the next line but everyone tries to make something rhyme with February. These proposals are brandished every decade or so by right-thinking astrophysicists who suggest that each year start on the same day of the week, floating holidays be anchored and algorithms dedicated to figuring out what to do with Leap Day.

Dick Henry, a physics professor at Johns Hopkins, deals with the leap conundrum in his "common civil calendar" by inserting an occasional extra week in December -- extra time to get business filings in order before the new year. In his plan, all months would have either 30 or 31 days, and your birthday would always fall on the same day of the week. "The fact of the matter is that economic organizations have to reorganize their calendars every year," says Henry. "With my calendar, once it's done, it's done."

Think of the order that could be achieved.

Think of it, and understand why we must keep our messy calendar, leaps and all.

Leap Day functions for us the same way it functions for Earth, after all: as a breather, a day to catch up, a wild card in the synced order of the rest of our lives.

It's a prolonged version of the languidness found on daylight saving days, where no one really knows what time it is and everyone uses that to their advantage:

I'm sorry to be four hours late/early/at the wrong location. The time change caused me to sleep in/zone out/get drunk by 3, which I thought was 6.

We loll through those days like characters in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, raising our heads from the divan to weakly ask what time it is, only to express disbelief at the answer. And to think, just yesterday at this time it was 9 o'clock, not 10.

Leap Days are like this, but longer, and grander in their utter lack of ambition. Nobody makes plans for Feb. 29, because nobody remembers when there is a Feb. 29. And so the day arrives like a snow day, an empty calendar slot with no obligations and no expectations. Just a pause.

"It's mostly just a busy work day for me," says John Lowe, who leads the Time and Frequency Services section at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Leap Day is his tax season; yesterday he gave 10 media interviews to explain where . . . time . . . goes.

And to think, just last year at this time it was March 1.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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