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Happy Leap Day 2020! Google doodle celebrates Earth's extra day, but why?

Google celebrated Leap Day 2020 with this animated doodle on Feb. 29, 2020.
Google celebrated Leap Day 2020 with this animated doodle on Feb. 29, 2020.
(Image: © Google)

Happy Leap Day, world! Today (Feb. 29) marks a rare event in the calendar — an extra day that occurs each "Leap Year" to keep our calendar in check. Google is celebrating with a cute Google doodle.

Leap days happen every four years (with a few exceptions) and adds an extra day to the short month of February.

"Today’s Doodle is jumping for joy on Leap Day, the 29th day of February that only occurs about every four years, to keep our calendars in alignment with the Earth and sun," Google representatives said in a statement. "We HOP you have a good one—Happy Leap Day!"

Leap days are an essential part of keeping the Gregorian calendar — the calendar that most of the world uses to keep time — in alignment with the Earth's motion around the sun. Our calendar is normally 365 days long under the Gregorian scheme, but the actual year of the Earth is 365.25 days. 

Therefore, adding an extra day every four years to create a 366-day year keeps our calendar in sync with the seasons.

"Every culture has to make choices on how they organize its calendar," Kenneth Coles, a geoscientist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said in a statement.

"We ignore the cycles of the moon, understanding that they can come anytime in the calendar – but we add the 'leap day' every four years to keep us in sync with the Earth’s revolution around the sun, which we call a solar year. There's no perfect solution, but it's the one we’ve developed."

If we didn't put it in a leap year, what's the worst that could happen? To answer that question, we need to journey back 2,000 years to the end of the Roman Republic. The Romans had a few calendar versions over the years; at the turn of the millennium, however, they had been using a 355-day year for a few centuries.

All seemed to go well for 700 years, because high-ranking state priests (Pontifices) would add extra days in some years (a process called intercalation) to keep the calendar in sync with the seasons. But there were flaws in the system, as LiveScience explains:

"Because a Roman magistrate's term of office corresponded with a calendar year, the power of intercalation was prone to abuse: the priests could lengthen a year in order to keep an ally in office, or shorten it when an opponent was in power. Also, since intercalations were often determined so close to their announcement, the average Roman citizen often did not know the date, particularly if they were some distance from the capital."

Julius Caesar was appointed dictator in 49 B.C. By 46 B.C., the calendar was three months out of alignment because there had only been five intercalary years preceding him, instead of the needed eight. Caesar (on the advice of mathematicians and scientists) added the needed extra months back in temporarily to put the calendar into alignment again. He also made permanent changes to the calendar fixing it at 365 days, with a "leap day" every four years.

The system worked well for 1,600 years, but it didn't perfectly match the seasons. By the late 16th century, the calendar was about 10 days out of alignment and threw the celebration of the Christian holiday Easter off from the actual spring equinox, when Easter is supposed to be celebrated. Pope Gregory XIII commissioned scholar Aloysius Liliusa to make changes – specifically, making century years that were divisble by 400 exempt (such as the year 2000) and cutting 10 days from the calendar in 1582.

The Gregorian calendar is still used today, with some modifications. In the mid-20th century, scientists changed the second to be based on the natural vibrations of the cesium atom, which were a feature of newly invented atomic clocks. This pulls the clock a little out of alignment with the Earth's naturally slowing rotation, so "leap seconds" are periodically added. The last leap second took place in December 2016.

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  • Truthseeker007
    What I want to know is why do we keep setting the clock an hour ahead in the spring and an hour behind in the fall. I can understand the leap year but in this day in age there is no need to be turning the clocks forward and ahead. Unless somebody can give a good reason what the point is for that?
    Reply
  • Poisson Volant
    This article contains two misstatements.

    The actual length of a solar year is 365.24+ days rather than 365.25, or about 11 minutes less. That tiny difference is critical to the Gregorian algorithm which the author also muddles with the statement that the calendar makes "... century years that were divisible by 400 exempt (such as the year 2000)".

    That's reversed: end-of-century years in the Gregorian calendar are exempt from the every-4-years rule when they're NOT divisible by 400. Thus 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years but 2000 was, and our grandchildren will similarly not have a leap year in 2100.

    The divisible-by-400 rule adjusts for those little 11-minute snippets that accumulate over the centuries. The adjustment's still not perfect, but close enough that the current calendar won't get out of sync with the solar year for many millennia to come.

    As an IT designer who was heavily involved in my then-employer's Y2K preparations, I encountered all sorts of misunderstandings of this end-of-century subtlety, up to and including a major industry publication with a front-page story on how 2000 would only have 365 days. (And it was an actuarial firm so yes, we really did have to worry about the year 2100 too :D )
    Reply
  • Redderek
    Truthseeker007 said:
    What I want to know is why do we keep setting the clock an hour ahead in the spring and an hour behind in the fall. I can understand the leap year but in this day in age there is no need to be turning the clocks forward and ahead. Unless somebody can give a good reason what the point is for that?
    Money. OK, it was originally used to save electricity back in Germany prior to WWII. However, when we pushed the fall back date to the first weekend in October it was due to money - that extra hour gave candy manufacturers that extra hour to hand out candy on Halloween.

    Personally, I would like to keep it to standard time through there is a push to make it permanently daylight savings.
    Reply
  • Poisson Volant
    Redderek said:
    Money. OK, it was originally used to save electricity back in Germany prior to WWII. However, when we pushed the fall back date to the first weekend in October it was due to money - that extra hour gave candy manufacturers that extra hour to hand out candy on Halloween.

    Personally, I would like to keep it to standard time through there is a push to make it permanently daylight savings.
    Germany instituted DST ("Sommerzeit", or summer time) in 1916 during WWI to save coal rather than just electricity. They were the first to adopt it nationwide, but cities and regions in other parts of the world had implemented it as early as 1908. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daylight_saving_time
    Reply
  • Truthseeker007
    Redderek said:
    Money. OK, it was originally used to save electricity back in Germany prior to WWII. However, when we pushed the fall back date to the first weekend in October it was due to money - that extra hour gave candy manufacturers that extra hour to hand out candy on Halloween.

    Personally, I would like to keep it to standard time through there is a push to make it permanently daylight savings.

    Thanks. I knew it had to involve candy and Halloween somehow.:DThose candy manufactures must have had a big candy lobby to push for this.lol!

    I agree and I would be happy if we would stop changing the time every year.
    Reply
  • Truthseeker007
    Poisson Volant said:
    Germany instituted DST ("Sommerzeit", or summer time) in 1916 during WWI to save coal rather than just electricity. They were the first to adopt it nationwide, but cities and regions in other parts of the world had implemented it as early as 1908. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daylight_saving_time

    Darn Germans strike again.lol!
    Reply