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Leap Day is Important, Not to Mention Quirky

You may know 2008 is an intercalary year. That makes today Leap Day in the United States. KPBS reporter Andrew Phelps had some questions about this unusual but important day. Here's what he found out.

Leap Day is Important, Not to Mention Quirky

You may know 2008 is an intercalary year. That makes today Leap Day in the United States. KPBS reporter Andrew Phelps had some questions about this unusual but important day. Here's what he found out.

First, let's say "happy birthday" to Jayne Javier from Chula Vista. Today is her seventh birthday.


Jayne: I will be turning 28.

Jayne was born on February 29th, a day that doesn't exist most years. What a drag, right? Twenty-eight years old and only seven birthdays?

Jayne: Usually, the 28th I celebrate with my family. And March 1st is usually when I go out with friends and celebrate with them, so, it turns out great for me.

Jayne is one of just four million living people in the world born on a leap day. They're known as "leaplings." Jayne's grandfather was also born on a leap day.

Jayne: Kinda runs in our family, I guess.


There may be some truth to that.

Janice Stillman: We found a family in Norway had three children born on this day.

This is Janice Stillman, editor of the Old Farmer's Almanac .

Stillman: And we learned of a family in Ireland that may hold the record for generations of Leap Day babies with three, a father, a son, and a granddaughter.

Scientists call today an intercalary day. Stillman says it's supposed to fix a little quirk in the way we measure time.

Stillman: You know generally we think that a year is 365 days long. But in fact, that's not the case. The earth actually takes 365.24219 days to orbit the Sun.

So without Leap Year, without a February 29th, we would lose almost six hours every year. More than 24 days every century. Without leap days, we would drift off-schedule.

Stillman: Without it, our calendar wouldn't be aligned with the four seasons. I mean, it's enough that we're facing possible climate change that we would also have calendar change.

Stillman says our ancestors knew about this problem thousands of years ago. The idea of leap years goes as far back as 239 B.C.

Stillman: It goes way back to the ancient Egyptians when the pharaoh Ptolemy, not to be confused with the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, first proposed doing something about this.

In 9 B.C., Romans designing the Julian calendar added an extra day every three years, instead of four.

Stillman: The king of England got in on it in 1236. Pope Gregory XIII stepped in in 1582 and proposed that it be used in all the Catholic countries.

Somewhere in the second millennium, a tradition developed. Stillman says Leap Day used to be known as “Ladies' Day,” the one day women could propose marriage to men.

Stillman: Some people believe that in 1288, the Scottish Parliament passed a law assessing a fine of one pound on any available gentleman who refused these proposals.

Times have changed, and apparently, time has changed, too. Stillman says scientists have discovered another glitch.

Stillman: Nature works in certain patterns and certain predictable cycles, we’ve come to realize. But the earth’s rotation has slowed a bit over the centuries, isn't always exactly the same.

That's right, forget global warming. We're talking global slowing. Scientists have an answer for that, too.

Stillman: To keep the clock in the solar time aligned, they’ve introduced he concept of leap seconds. So, since 1971, a leap second has been added about once every 18 months at midnight on either December 31 or June 30.

All of this forces us to remember time is relative. Our measurement of time is inexact.

Stillman: You know, our philosophy at the Old Farmer’s Almanac is just to, you know, whether it’s a second or a minute or a day, just make the most of it.

On this extra day of 2008, I leave you with the official, or perhaps only, Leap Day song. It's called "229" by the band Rookie Card from – you guessed it – San Diego.

Andrew Phelps, KPBS News.