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29 February 2012

Bad Astronomy: Why we have Leap Days

Today the Bad Astronomer himself explains Lead Years.  Actually, a pretty fun bit of information there.  I have always said that the universe has no reason to follow our desires, and when it comes to the orbit of our planet, the universe makes things difficult for us.  Hence all the strange little games we have to play in order to keep our calendar aligned the way we want it to.  Or as Dr. Plait says (there's A LOT more to it than just the every 4 years bit...):

Why we have leap days

Warning: First, this is a somewhat modified repost from — oddly enough — four years ago. Second, this post has math in it. A lot. Some of it might even be correct. If you are mathophobic, then you might want to skip to the end, where I reveal what Rosebud means.

And for those of you who are incredibly anal, yes, I know I kinda lost track of significant digits about 2/3 of the way through this. I was using a calculator, and just used whatever numbers it gave me to the last decimal place, leaving off for the most part trailing 0s. Sue me. I’m free on February 29th, 4800.

When I was a kid, I had a friend whose birthday was on February 29th. I used to rib him that he was only 3 years old, and he would visibly restrain himself from punching me. Evidently he heard that joke a lot.

Of course, he was really 12. But since February 29th is a leap day, it only comes once every four years.

And why is it only a quadrennial event?

Duh. Astronomy!

The Days of Our Lives

We have two basic units of time: the day and the year. Of all the everyday measurements we use, these are the only two based on concrete physical events: the time it takes for the Earth to spin once on its axis, and the time it takes to go around the Sun. Every other unit of time we use (second, hour, week, month) is rather arbitrary. They’re convenient, but not based on independent, non-arbitrary events.

It takes roughly 365 days for the Earth to orbit the Sun once. If it were exactly 365 days, we’d be all set! Our calendars would be the same every year, and there’d be no worries.

But that’s not the way things are. There are not an exactly even number of days in a year; there are about 365.25 days in a year. That means every year, our calendar is off by about a quarter of a day, an extra 6 or so hours just sitting there, left over. After four years, then, the yearly calendar is off by roughly one day:

4 years at 365 (calendar) days/year = 1460 days, but

4 years at 365.25 (physical) days/year = 1461 days.

So after four years the calendar is behind by a day. That means to balance it out again we add that day back in once every four years. February is the shortest month (due to some Caesarian shenanigans), so we stick the day there, call it February 29th, the Leap Day, and everyone is happy.


Integral to the plot

Except…

READ THE REST OF THE POST HERE.

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