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Keeping time is for the birds

POSTED: March 12, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The idea of leap year was first proposed by a guy named Aloysius Lilius, who was also known as Luigi Lilio or Luigi Giglio. Whoever he was, he was a pretty smart guy.

Al, as his closest friends called him, was a medical doctor, astronomer, philosopher and chronologist.

I’m hoping he made a decent living as a doctor, because I’m not sure the other three jobs paid very well.

I’ve known several people who have had degrees in philosophy. There is not a big demand for philosophers. Flip over to the classified ads in today’s paper and I can just about assure you that there is not a single ad for an open position for a philosopher.

Al’s ability as an astronomer and a chronologist has served us well. But it had to be tough. The first real clock wasn’t invented until the year after Al died.

First of all, telling time is done by measuring when the sun comes through the crack in the wall or the moon is over the top of the church or some such way.

He came up with all this before he died in 1576. But they didn’t convince Pope Gregory XIII to adopt the calendar until 1582.

Most of us now follow the Gregorian calendar. The good pope named it for himself.

If Al hadn’t figured this out in some rudimentary way, we would be way off schedule.

If my calculations are correct (and bear in mind I’m not a mathematician), we would be off by 106 days.

I’m not smart enough to figure this out, but we would either be getting ready for Thanksgiving or celebrating Memorial Day with our long handles on.

The reason the pope was worried about the calendar was because of Easter. It was coming too late.
What’s really confusing is we use the lunar calendar to figure out when to celebrate Easter. This year it is on the second earliest day that it can happen, March 23. I certainly want to be correct, but that’s a tad early.

I’ve got a seersucker suit that I usually pull out on Easter, along with my white buck shoes. One of my daughters thinks I look like an ice cream man. This year I might look more like an icicle if I wear them.

But there are other peculiarities of this season. Every year on March 19, which incidentally is St. Joseph’s Day, the swallows fly back to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano in California.

They have checked these birds and found that none of them is wearing a Seiko. They just show up, pardon the pun, like clockwork.

Four days before that, on March 15, the buzzards return every year to Hinkley, Ohio. Same day every year, look outside and there are the buzzards.

Now the part of this that is really amazing is that buzzards and swallows don’t follow this whole leap year business, but on those particular days in March, they come back.

I’m not sure what kind of bird came back to the place where Al lived in Italy, but I guess he made some tally marks on a slate. Every four years, it took an extra tally mark before the birds came back and Al put two and two together and figured it out.

Regardless, if there’s going to be an extra day every four years, why can’t we take it between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day or the day before your taxes are due?

Harris Blackwood is community editor of The Times. His columns appear Wednesdays and Sundays.



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