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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Feb. 29, 2008

Leap day lessons, laughs

by Anne Krapfl

Welcome to leap day 2008 -- the infrequent Feb. 29 -- the day that, every four years, nearly sets our Gregorian calendar right with the Earth's orbit around the sun.

The need for a calendar-righting event was born mostly out of people's desire for predictability, to have seasonal events -- fall, spring -- occur at the same time each year, said Charles Kerton, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy.

"They concocted a calendar so that spring comes each year in March, not in June or eventually in September," he said. "People who ran even the early societies saw advantages to having feast days and significant church holidays happen in the same season each year."

Julius Caesar gets credit for implementing an early (45 B.C.) calendar that addressed the problem. The dilemma, Kerton said, is that it takes the earth 365.2425 days to orbit the sun; not a nice, neat, whole number. Caesar's calendar specifically created a Feb. 29 every fourth year as the solution. Even then, his calendar overshot the solar year by a few minutes -- 11 or so -- each year.

Not bad, but over the years, 11 minutes adds up.

Pope Gregory 13th tweaked the Julian calendar in 1582 because the Church's Easter observance was slipping further away from the standing date for the spring equinox. Under his new Gregorian calendar, the century years (for example, 1700 or 2000) aren't leap years unless they're divisible by 400. This shortens the seasonal calendar every so often and puts it nearly perfectly in line with the solar calendar. The difference now is less than 30 seconds each year.

Young for their age

Thirty seconds isn't much to young Daniel Brumm, who was born four years ago and turns 1 on Feb. 29. Daniel is the son of Tom Brumm, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering.

"He doesn't really get the leap year concept yet," Brumm said.

In fact, Daniel doesn't need to wait for Feb. 29 -- or, in those off years, Feb. 28, to celebrate.

"If it's February, it counts," Brumm said. "He's been telling me all month, 'I'm four!'"

For obvious reasons, the Brumms celebrated Daniel's first three birthdays on Feb. 28.

"How can you wait until March when he's ready to go the first of February?" Brumm said.

He said the joke at their house is that Daniel won't get his driver's license until he's 64, and his mom and dad will drive him everywhere until then.

Doug Fils, senior systems analyst for the geological and atmospheric sciences department, has heard a lot of the same kind of jokes. Fils celebrates his 10th leap day birthday today. According to university records, he's one of just six employees with a Feb. 29 birthday.

"When I was young, my siblings used to tease me [in the non-leap years] that I wouldn't get a birthday," he recalled. "And when I was 16, there were four candles on the cake."

Still, he wouldn't change a thing.

"People like unique things, and something like this definitely is unique," he said. "Growing up in small-town Iowa, this is the kind of thing that gets you in the newspaper."

His most forgettable leap year birthday? "I work with computers and in 2000, the computers missed the leap day. I spent my birthday doing patches."

Steve Bryant, who supervises the Meat Lab and is another ISU leap day kid, said his birthday has caused a lot of second looks and scrunched eyebrows over the years. "When people need to check your birthday and you tell them Feb. 29, of course their first reaction is to think, 'Now, that's not right.'"

Leap day bride

So, birthdays fall where they will. But would anyone actually hand-pick leap day? Cindy Manning did -- for her wedding. Manning, a clerk in the Center for Nondestructive Evaluation, and her husband were planning a June 1992 wedding, when he noticed 1992 was a leap year -- and Feb. 29 was a Saturday to boot.

"He was funny about it, suggesting he could save a lot of money by not getting an anniversary gift every year," she recalled.

Over the years, they have celebrated in non-leap years on Feb. 28 or March 1, usually whichever date is closer to a weekend. The leap year celebrations tend to be a little bigger, typically a weekend getaway.

Manning said she has no regrets about selecting that date.

"People thought we were nuts, but it's been a really fun part of our marriage."


"People like unique things, and something like this definitely is unique. Growing up in small-town Iowa, this is the kind of thing that gets you in the newspaper."

Doug Fils