WD Fyfe

A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society

Leap Year: It’s About Time

Okay, ladies and gentlemen!  Brace yourselves — because there’s no way to sugar-coat it.  Today doesn’t exist; you are standing in a man made time warp.  What you think of as now has already passed, and the future won’t begin again until after midnight.  Deep, huh?  Don’t be scared, though; it happens every four years.  (Not really but it’s too complicated to explain*.)  It’s called a Leap Year, or Leap Day to be more precise, and we need it because the universe doesn’t care what time you want to go to work.

The Universe, Mother Nature’s boss, doesn’t get involved in the affairs of humans.  It’s got better things to do.  We humans, Mother Nature’s most precocious children, have never quite understood that.  We think that if we make a couple more scientific discoveries or sit naked on a mountainside for a couple of years, we’ll get this whole universe thing figured out.  It’s not likely, but nobody ever accused our species of being humble.  The Universe actually rolls on without us, asking neither permission nor forgiveness, and nothing we say or do is going to change that.  So every once in a while, without actually admitting it, we have to adapt or… well … nothing really, because, as I’ve said, the Universe doesn’t care.

Despite what old hippies and serious dope smokers will tell you, Time is not an artificial concept.  It exists, and people have always measured it.  Way back in the caveman days, there were only two times — dark and light.  This is an extremely accurate measurement which most species on this planet still use.  However, as our species got busier and busier, they discovered that minor Time (major time was beyond their grasp) had recurring themes.  The sun travelled across the sky, the moon got larger and smaller, and familiar clusters of stars moved in elliptical patterns.  All these things happened with incredible regularity.  Therefore, it was simple for primitive humans to figure out that there were usually twenty nine suns between each full moon.  Not only that, but our ancestors also found that if they persistently watched the night sky, the movement of the stars corresponded to the seasons.  For example, what we call Orion’s Belt first appears in the southwestern sky in early January, soon after the morning sun is lowest on the horizon.  Thus, by noting when Orion’s Belt first appeared in the sky and counting the number of suns until it reappeared, early skywatchers discovered a complete earthly cycle or a year.  These two rough and ready measurements (or something similar) are the basis of all early calendars.

Unfortunately, as our society got more and more sophisticated, these primitive tools didn’t keep pace.  There is an inconsistency between the months and the years that causes nothing but problems.  Essentially, 12 lunar months equal only 348 solar days — which leaves a 17 day gap in the celestial year.  As the years went on, the seasons were slowly getting out of whack.  No less a light than Julius Caesar saw this and devised a new system called The Julian Calendar that remedied most of the problems – for a while.  However, 1600 years later these problems were back — with some extra added attractions.  Not only were the seasons out of place again (they had moved twelve calendar days in the centuries since Caesar) but the highest holiday in the Christian calendar, Easter, whose timing is based on the Spring Equinox, was disappearing into seasonal winter.  Pope Gregory XIII decided rather than let the Universe figure it out, he would fix it.  After all, he was the infallible head of the Roman Catholic Church.  He set his minions a mission: devise a calendar that would work for all time and keep Easter in the spring (where it belonged.)  They came up with the Gregorian Calendar which added an extra day in February every four years (or so) to even out the imbalance.  Gregory’s new calendar was proclaimed in a papal bull on February 24th, 1582 and is now in general use.  Problem solved.

Which brings us back to the time warp that is today.  Today doesn’t exist because Gregory’s extra day was inserted for time already past.  Here’s the deal.  As our earth moves through the Universe, it takes 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds to go from point A all the way around to point A again.  For simple calculations, we call that a year.  That was the amount of time a year took in 2009, 2010 and 2011.  Obviously, that time is gone.  However, in our burning need to realign the Universe, here we are with a whole extra day to make up for it.  Actually, if you want to be picky, the first 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds of today did exist, but the other 17 hours, 27 minutes and 36 seconds don’t.  They’re all in our past.  We’ve already lived those hours, minutes and seconds.  In the great metaphysical scheme of things, this is borrowed time.

So take the rest of the day off, kick back, throw a ball, read to your kids or just lie elbows deep in a pillow, contemplating the infinite.  If anybody asks, blame it on Pope Gregory.  He’s the guy who thought a little time management would be good for the Universe.

 

*A Leap Year is every year that is exactly divisible by four, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100; the centurial years that are exactly divisible by 400 are still leap years. For example, the year 1900 is not a leap year; the year 2000 is a leap year.

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This entry was posted on February 29, 2012 by in History, Social Comment and tagged , , , , , .
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