those lying, lying liars

Smug Alert

You know how scientists and historians are liable to liken the total time civilization has existed versus the total time the earth has existed to “the blink of an eye?” At the drop of a hat? I’ve always taken their word for that. I mean, why would scientists and historians lie to me, or be so sloppy that they screwed up on such a common comparison? They’re not typically liars and slobs. But I, for no other reason than I’m here in Miami with time to waste, decided to actually check that comparison. You lucky, lucky people!

First, I want to make it clear that I believe I’m the first one to check this comparison ever, in the history of the world. I realize that’s a powerful statement, but a 50 second Google investigation leads me to believe it’s true, and that’s good enough for me.

Second, to even make sense of the “blink of an eye” statement as a comparison, I realized I needed to know what unit of time the blink was being compared to. I mean, you can’t just say “civilization is to blink of an eye” as “age of the earth is to blank” without providing options for “blank.” That would be thoughtless and cruel. That would also get you a vicious, well-earned beating at an SAT exam if you were proctoring the test.  So I had to apply a little common sense to this. What biological process would a scientist or historian pair with “the blink of an eye” when trying to stun the reader with how really big the time difference is  between  the lifespan of civilization and the lifespan of the world? What biological process could they use? It’s, of course, a gigantic differential, a geological one; no one’s disputing that. At least no one near enough for me to reach out and slap some sense into. In the end, the only thing that seems reasonable to put up against that huge disparity is the human lifespan. And I think that’s a reasonable conclusion for any non-slappable person, especially when I can now word it like this: “civilization is to blink of an eye as earth’s lifespan is to human’s lifespan.” See how pleasing and SAT-ish that looks?

Third, now that I’ve identified my terms, the only thing I have to do prior to figuring out if I’m being lied to is to rigorously define these terms, viz: 1)time-length of civilization, 2)time-length of eye-blink, 3)time-length of earth’s existence, and 4)time-length of human life:

1. The length of time civilization’s been around depends on your definition of civilization. That doesn’t really apply here, of course; I don’t personally care what your definition is. My definition depends only on googling “when did civilization begin?”, clicking through to 2 or 3 different sites that appear the least bit relevant, grabbing some numbers, adding those numbers up, then dividing by the number of numbers added. Civilization’s been around for 7,000 years.

2. Wiki-answers answers “How long does it take to blink an eye” as if the question were about how much time humans go between eyeblinks. That definition had never occurred to me. It seemed, in fact, like bullshit. On the other hand, it also seemed like one of those things that was obvious to everybody else in the world, yet I had somehow managed to get wrong for decades. Luckily for my sanity, timed an eyeblink at about a tenth of a second, which conformed to my previous thinking, so wiki-answers is indeed a-bursting with bullshit.

3. If I’d approached the age of the earth in the same way as I approached the age of civilization (1 above), I would’ve had to arrange for some mechanism with which to throw out the Jesus-freak estimates. Instead I relied on high school and college textbook memories of this amount of time that are so ingrained in me that I could probably access those brain cells before I access the ones that tell me how many legs a tripod has. And then I arbitrarily added 500 million to come up with the answer: 5 billion years.

4. 75 years, because I’m all agreed that that’s about what it is.

That settled, I was able to mathematically describe the comparison:

(time-span of civilization)/(age of earth) = (time to blink an eye)/(human lifespan)

or, filling in those statements with the rigorous numbers from above,

7,000yrs/5 billion years = 0.1 second/2.36682 billion seconds

(where 75yrs = 75yrs x 365.25days/1yr x 24hrs/1day x 60min/1hr x 60sec/1min = 2.36682 billion sec).

So, canceling out the units and typing out the zeroes to make my work look more impressive, we have 7,000/5,000,000,000 = 0.1/2,300,000,000, or

7/5,000,000 = 1/23,000,000,000, or even

1/714,286 = 1/23,000,000,000

which we can finally see is utter bullshit.

Therefore (or, if we spent an extra 2 minutes googling it up, and we did, “∴” ), the entire span of human civilization is 5 orders of magnitude larger than the blink of an eye, if by “orders of magnitude” I mean what I think I mean.  In other words, my friends, the metaphor is a lie.

To be accurate–and scientists and historians are nothing if not accuracy fetishists–they pride themselves on it, they live for that shit–the metaphor should really be phrased something like this: “Civilization began 7,000 years ago, which, in human terms, is around 32,000 blinks of an eye” (computation available upon request). Or if that doesn’t float their boat, “Civilization began 7,000 years ago, which is like everybody in Tupelo, MS, blinking at once, provided 4,000 of them are on vacation at the time.”  Granted, the phrase has become kind of verbose and pitiful, but I didn’t make this bed, and I’m not the one who has to sleep in it.

In conclusion, “Beeyatch.”

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5 Responses to those lying, lying liars

  1. drew says:

    I just applauded a little bit, right here at my desk.

  2. ecto says:

    I know, right? It came to me all at once, like a vision, while sitting on the couch switching between “Jurassic Fight Club” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

  3. annie says:

    you’ve pulled the very rug out from under me! (ha- well played!). Ever seen Black Books?(and yes, that’s a complete non sequitur)

  4. drew says:

    Black Books — now *there* is a grumpy dude. You might like the britcom of which Annie speaks, ecto.

  5. ecto says:

    I saw the first 2 episodes of Black Books on Youtube per y’all’s suggestive bug. Nice!

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