A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker


There are two subjects that I have conscientiously tried to avoid through 18 years of writing this column.  It isn’t that I didn’t think you could handle a frank discussion on these maters.  It was that I just couldn’t find the words.

But the time has come to talk about them both.  Boldly.  So here goes.  It’s time to talk about . . . I can’t believe I’m doing this . . . it’s time to talk about . . . math.  And science.

Together.  At the same time.

I know.  It’s scary, awkward and uncomfortable to get into this stuff in a newspaper column, especially one that is written by someone who doesn’t know an integer from a proton from a mango (you mean there’s a difference?).  But there is just no way to talk about Leap Year without at least mentioning the mathematics and the science involved.

So OK.  Remember back in grade school, when they taught you about how the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun?  Back in those days they told you that it takes about 24 hours (a full day) for the earth to rotate once, and about 365 days – or a year – to complete one complete revolution around the sun.  Well, they lied. It actually takes 365 days and about six hours to make the complete revolution, so every four years they have to add an extra day to the calendar – February 29 – to make up the difference.  Otherwise the seasons would drift over time and eventually we’d be celebrating Christmas in the middle of the summer – which, come to think of it, is how it works in Australia, but they play a lot of rugby down there and bang their heads together so often in scrums and such that they don’t really notice.

Now, here’s where the math starts to get tricky.  You notice that I said that it takes 365 days and “about” six hours to make the complete revolution around the sun.  The actual number is 365 days, five hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds.  That means that in about 8,000 years we’ll be off by another day.  Some scientists are proposing that the year 4000 A.D. NOT be considered a leap year in order to compensate, while others suggest that the length of the vernal equinox will probably change by then so the adjustment may not be necessary.  And then there are the global warming folks who insist that if we don’t make the necessary changes in our carbon footprinting of this planet we will have burned to a crisp by then, so who really cares?

Still, if you’re making plans for Feb. 29, 4000, you should probably write them in pencil.

None of which changes the fact that you have an extra day this year.

Think about that for a second: an extra day!  Twenty-four hours that you didn’t have last year, or the year before that.  It’s like finding a 20 dollar bill in your pants pocket.  Suddenly you’re rich, and your mind swims with the possibilities for spending this unforeseen bounty.

The last time I lucked into extra cash in my pocket I blew it by ordering biggie sizes at the fast food restaurant instead of ordering from the extra value menu.  What a waste (and, come to think of it, waist).  Instead of strategically planning the best ways to take full advantage of my good fortune I spent it whimsically, and before long it was just gone, and I only had greasy fingers and through-the-roof cholesterol to show for it.

Is that what we will do with this gift of an extra day in 2008?  Will we just blow it, or will we accept it as a gift and make a plan to spend it wisely?  Make it a day of service.  A day of caring.  A day to give back to your community, your neighborhood, your church or your school.

Or perhaps it can be that mythical, magical “someday” when you do all those things you’ve been meaning to do but put off until you had the time.  You have the time on Feb. 29 – 24 hours that you didn’t have last year, and you won’t have next year.  So write those letters you’ve been meaning to write.  Visit that elderly aunt.  Take the kids bowling.  Clean the basement.

OK, forget that last one.  Surely you can think of a better way to spend your extra day than that.  But whatever you do, spend it well.  Make it special.  It is, after all, a gift.

And how often do you get a gift from science and math?

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— © Joseph Walker

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