Echo Gerhart has a driver’s license. She is a senior at USF and she can vote. If none of these abilities sound impressive, consider the fact that she is only five years old.
Well, sort of. While most people can celebrate their birth on the exact date, Gerhart must wait four years for her real birthday. She is one of the few born on a leap year.
“It’s kind of fun because no one really forgets your birthday,” Gerhart said. Overall, her birthday has not caused her too much trouble, “except electronic applications don’t have it as an option,” Gerhart said. While most years she celebrates on Feb. 28, Gerhart’s birthday receives national attention Friday as people recognize the extra day in the year.
A giant leap-year birthday party is held in the border town of Anthony, Texas/New Mexico. For the sixth time since 1988, the town will host the World Wide Leap Year Festival. The celebration for leapers, as they are endearingly known, will host a golf tournament, casino trip, parade and hot air balloon rides all for the sake of getting leap year babies from across the world acquainted.
To fully grasp why the leap year is necessary, one must first know a few basic facts.
The year refers to how long it takes the Earth to make a complete orbit around the sun, and the length of a year doesn’t necessarily have to be a whole number of days, said former USF astronomy professor Carol Williams. A year can equal a whole number plus a fraction.
With this in mind, it takes about 365.25 days for the Earth to go around the sun. That extra quarter, though, is actually closer to .2422, she said.
So on Dec. 31, after 365 days have passed, there is still a quarter of a day left over.
“In other words, six more hours before the earth gets back to this special position in its orbit,” Williams said.
There is a problem, however, with disregarding the extra hours, she said.
“You’re claiming that you are already into the next orbit when you’re really not,” she said. “If you ignore the difference, after the second year, you are now 12 hours short. The third time around, we’d be 18 hours out of phase. The fourth time around, we’d be almost one full day out of phase. If you keep ignoring this, eight years later it’s two full days.”
Eventually, the seasons would change and start occurring earlier in the year, Williams said.
To avoid altering the dates for the season changes, every four years an extra day is thrown in so that the start of orbit is recorded at the correct point.
“We allow ourselves to catch up and that keeps the dates of the seasons in check,” she said.
The Gregorian calendar used today differs from the Julian calendar used previously by 10 days. The transition from the old calendar wasn’t a smooth one.
The 10 days were removed around the first of October. This changed the date from Oct. 1 to Oct. 10, so those 10 days disappeared. “People who had birthdays between those dates couldn’t celebrate,” Williams said. “People were charging rent for full months and since October was only 20 days long that year, people didn’t want to pay a full month’s rent. There are a lot of interesting sociological issues that popped up.”
Still, the Gregorian calendar has its flaws.
“The quarter of the day error still wasn’t precise. If you add a leap year every four years, at the end of 100 years, you’ve added 25 leap years and, because (the decimal) is about .24 and not .25, you should only add 24 leap years,” Williams said.
To remedy this, at the ends of centuries, leap years are cancelled to come out with 24 leap years instead. But the decimal isn’t precisely .24 either.
“So by not adding a leap year at the end of the century, it wasn’t quite enough,” she said.
Eventually, only century leap years divisible by 400, like 1600, were counted. “Pope Gregory’s calendar is supposed to work for a few thousand years without throwing the dates of the seasons off balance. It’s still not perfect. In a few thousand years we’ll have to change it again,” Williams said.
Williams also explained why February is the chosen leap year month in the context of astronomy.
“February was chosen because it was the shortest month, but there have always been issues about the length of the month because they liked the month to follow the moon’s orbit, which is 29 and a half days. So the length of February follows the moon better in a leap year – better than any other month does.”
Some countries legally recognize leap year birthdays on Feb. 28, while others recognize March 1, because the last day of February is technically a day too soon.
At times, certain locations strictly enforce the law. When Gerhart celebrated her 17th birthday on the 28th, movie theater employees did not let her into an R-rated movie because she was still technically underage.
The next leap year is 2012, a year rumored to be the end of the world by several ancient Mesoamerican cultures, including the Mayans. For reasons still debated today, these tribes predicted doomsday to occur on Dec. 21, 2012. Their reasoning was based on the belief that nature follows unchanging cycles that can result in apocalyptic natural disasters.
“I am almost 70 years old and I have heard that the end of the world is coming at least 30 times in my life. So this is what I say about 2012: If they’re right, I’m not going to worry about it,” Williams said.
Unless that superstition holds true, it looks to be just another year for leap-year babies to celebrate their birthdays.