Leap year flight of fancy: how to remake the calendar with no leap day

Two professors, an astrophysicist and an economist, propose junking the leap day dependent Gregorian Calendar for a 364-day (52-week) year and a leap week every once in a while.

Should this year's "leap day" be the last one? Yes, say some scholars who have analyzed the complexity of the Gregorian Calendar on which humanity now relies.

That calendar includes the familiar 12 months of varying lengths, with February punctuated by an extra "leap day" every four years (except, to be precise, in years that end in 00, which are governed by slightly more complicated rules).

Debate about calendars are, if not as old as time, hardly new. George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Co., once complained that the Gregorian calendar created a host of challenges.

"Holidays occur on various days of the week, changing each year," Mr. Eastman wrote in 1926. That wasn't just a nuisance, he said. It also meant added costs for businesses trying to arrange their schedules.

Enter two professors at Johns Hopkins University, one an astrophysicist and one an economist, with what they think is a better way for us to manage our time.

Richard Conn Henry and Steve Hanke argue that 2012 should be the start of a new calendar, in which Christmas always falls on a Sunday and lots of other things also get simpler, from planning a birthday party to calculating interest on a mortgage.

They say a simpler calendar will be better for the economy and society. Although leap days would disappear, this new calendar still needs a solution to the problem that Earth's annual circuit of the sun doesn't divide easily in a year of seven-day weeks (or of 365 days, for that matter).

The proposed 364-day (364 is divisible by 7) Hanke-Henry permanent calendar would ignore this issue during most years, and add a week-long "mini-month" (call it a leap week?) at the end of December every five or six years.

Other than that anomalous week, which they dub Xtr (or Extra), each year would be made of up four 91-day quarters (still totaling 12 months, eight of them having 30 days and four having 31 days).

“Our plan offers a stable calendar that is absolutely identical from year to year and which allows the permanent, rational planning of annual activities, from school to work holidays,” says Henry, the astrophysicist, in a statement released recently through the university.

Not everyone likes the idea. For one thing, many people like that their birthday doesn't land on, say, Tuesday every single year, as would occur under the Hanke-Henry calendar. Then there's the simple inertia of tradition.

But Henry and economist Mr. Hanke fire answers back at their critics.

Too hard to persuade people to change? Think of the benefits. "How much needless work do institutions, such as companies and colleges, put into arranging their calendars for every coming year?" they write in an online promotion of their idea (which they credit originally to a calendar whiz named Bob McClenon). People thought Canada would never adapt to Celsius temperatures, but change happened.

Too big a break with tradition? Henry and Hanke emphasize that consistent seven-day weeks with a sabbath will go unchanged, unlike in many other new calendar schemes that have been proposed.

Too rigid? Relax, you could still celebrate your birthday on whatever day you like, they argue. Even if you were born during that irregular week called Xtr.

Among the financial benefits are some specially for accounting types: Determining how much interest accrues on mortgages, bonds, or other agreements will no longer require complex conventions regarding calendar oddities, Hanke says.

The two scholars argued late last year that Jan. 1, 2012, would be a natural date to introduce the new time scheme, because Jan. 1 is a Sunday in both the current Pope Gregory calendar and their simplified calendar.

So far, amid news events like primary elections and global concern about a nuclear Iran, the idea hasn't gotten a groundswell of support.

At the very least, it's a reminder that calendars are something of human creation, not etched in stone. (OK, a few of them have been etched in stone.) And maybe the idea will catch on, after another leap day or two have gone by.

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