Today is a special day. It is the first time I am able to put up a post in this blog on a day that comes once in every four years. February 29, 2012.
We all know what a leap year is... but why does it have 366 days instead of the 365 that we get from a normal year? Nowadays, it is very easy to get an answer to this question... just google. But back when I was in primary school, I remember looking for the answer in a thick book in the school library.
It was 1972 and I was in Standard 4. My teacher told me that the month of February in that year has 29 days. When I asked why, she told me to look for the answer in a book that explains about our solar system. I remember looking at an illustration in the book showing the Earth with an imaginary line circling the Sun. The caption below the picture says that the time it takes for Earth to do one complete revolution around the Sun is 365 and 1/4 days. This then equals one year. But then, it would be impractical to have a quarter day at the end of each year... just imagine that there would be a December 32nd that lasts for only 6 hours, from midnight to 6am, and that New Year's Day (1st January) would then start at 6am. Everything would be out of sync.
It was Julius Ceasar who first introduced the concept of leap days when he invented his Julian calendar at around 45 BCE. It was not terribly accurate and was later improved by a new calendar created by Pope Gregory XIII around 1,500 years later. The Gregorian calendar now forms the basis of time tracking and measurement for most of the modern world today. But why do we need to add that extra day every four years? It is because of the seasons. If we don't add the extra day, we lose about 6 hours every year and winter in the northern hemisphere would start to move forward. The recoupment of that 6 hours each year for 4 years ensures that the seasons happen at roughly the same time every year.
While refreshing my knowledge on this subject earlier today, I found out that the Earth's orbit is not exactly 365 and a quarter days. It is approximately 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds... and I say approximately because this duration can vary slightly depending on the relative position and influence of other planets. This means that even adding a day after every four years is not really that perfect if we look at the big picture. But the effect may only be significant in 8,000 years time. That's way ahead in the future for us to worry about... let the people living at that time solve it themselves.