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Sunday, February 29, 2004

OT: Calendar Tricks, and Second Chances

Today is a leap year's day, the first in eight years. We missed one in 2000 because the year was divisible by 400. This one leap year's day forgot was the great addition of the Gregorian calendar, now used throughout the world. To read it now, the adoption of Christoph Clavius' calendar -- it is more correctly his than the pope's -- in Protestant countries is nearly unimaginable; it was at first rejected in England, Germany, and the Netherlands. Imagine the rejection of Newtonian mechanics in an Iowa statehouse, or the operation of the circulatory system in Congress. Yet, we have those in power who wish to suppress stem cell research, and so our link to the progress-frustrating past continues.

Probably my favorite chronological anomaly is the leap second, made necessary by advances in timekeeping made in the 1950's, and in particular, the invention of the atomic clock. This unimaginably accurate instrument discovered the earth's slow deceleration by roughly one second per 18 months. To compensate, scientists running the world's time system created a leap second periodically if needed. I used to work for a company that made military surveillance satellites, and on the days we would get a leap second, one of the staff would bake a chocolate cake. So perhaps I have a Pavlovian fondness for leap seconds. But, things are speeding up, and the earth itself seems to be one of them. There hasn't been a leap second since 1999 because of that small acceleration, but it strikes me a little sad that the leap second seems destined to go away. Perhaps we should have a chocolate cake today, anyway.


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