Leap Time (The Time of Leaping)

Rotation and revolution. From two simple motions, the Earth gleans its pirouette through the endless night of space. Twirl away from the sun, then back towards it. Prance all the way around to the far side, and return to first position. The movement allows for a measure of predictability in our lives. We know when the crops will grow, we know when it's time to harvest, and we know that my birthday will always fall in the slush-gray death of winter, while my sister's birthday will always fall in the midst of summer, when things are awesome.

The calendar, of course, is an artificial construct — a not-entirely-snug framework pulled roughly over the curves of time, like a favorite pair of jeans that won't go on without a certain amount of wiggling on the bed. And as modern instruments allow for finer and finer calculations of Earth's exact position in orbit, we're noticing just how ill-fitting that framework can be.

Timekeepers figured out centuries ago that the calendar needs an extra day every four years to keep things copacetic. But in 1972, with official time being regulated by atomic frequencies and what not, the Powers That Be came to the conclusion that the calendar was behind, and needed an extra second. A leap second.

They added two that year, and one per year for the rest of the 70's. So no, Baby Boomers, it wasn't your imagination. That decade really was taking longer. I know, I know — you wanted the 80's to hurry up and arrive so you could start making metric shit-tonnes of money.

There have been fourteen leap seconds since then, and the Powers That Be announced this week that another will be added on New Year's Eve. Only once before has there been a leap second in an actual leap year, which will make 2008 the longest year since 1992.

It all seems harmless enough. A second here, a second there. Corks will technically pop after a brief hesitation, and "Auld Lang Syne" will begin with an additional intake of breath. But here's the thing. Apparently, we're going to need a bunch more of these leap seconds down the road. Bit by microscopic bit, the Earth's rotation is slowing. That endless pirouette is taking a teensy bit longer to complete with each iteration.

Scientists say the slowdown is due in part to tidal friction. (Thanks a lot, oceans. If you weren't the source of all life, we would be so mad right now.) There's nothing much that can be done about it, so we'll just keep adding leap time.

Okay, that's great & all, I suppose, but can I ask a question? What does this imply for the future, if the Earth keeps slowing? Leap seconds are a suitable stopgap measure now, but are they going to be enough? Will we need ever-increasing leap increments? We already have the leap day every election-cycle-slash-Summer-Olympics, what next? Leap week? An entire leap month? Leapuary? Leaptember?

And how would we process having a non-existent month dropped our heads? It would be a freebie month — four solid weeks that don't exist in the calendar, that won't be there next year. Would anything we do in that month even count? Would there be any repercussions at all? Could we just do whatever the hell we want, with whomever we want, and then act like it never happened? A universally recognized mulligan, that couldn't be argued by anyone? Wait a minute, what the hell am I talking about, I should shut my mouth before I jinx it.

Anyway, I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself. As for the Great Leap Second of 2008, it may be having an impact already. When I read about it, I glanced at the pile of papers on my desk, and at the messages in my inbox, and thought ...

"Well screw it, no need to rush."