In the Blink of a Simile

Science writers are clever.

Whenever they want to impress upon a reader that a very long period of time is not so long in a geological context, they break out the inevitable blink-of-an-eye simile.

For example, when the Christian Science Monitor reported in a June 4 article that whales took only 5 million years to evolve, they quoted one researcher as saying:

Five million years is like the blink of an eye.

National Public Radio’s Andrea Seabrook made a similar assertion in a 2008 segment of Science out of the Box when she stated that the Holocene epoch

…began 12,000 years ago, a mere blink of the eye in geologic time.

And a story in USA Today from 2004 about volcanic eruptions in the Pacific Northwest of the US said:

…Rainier hasn’t blown big-time in 500 years — hardly a blink of an eye in geologic time.

Finally, Time Magazine, in a 2008 piece about climate change wrote:

In less than a human lifetime — barely the blink of an eye in geologic time — a way of life millenniums old will be lost here.

The simile by itself is just a conventional illustration of proportion. But taking the above examples together with all their discrepancies, one is left with a disturbing question.

Why can’t science writers blink like the rest of us?

One theory is that science writers are aliens from another solar system and thus have no eyelids. They have travelled great distances in space and time to come to this planet and write for USA Today. This would explain why these writers know so much about everything, but are woefully ignorant about blinking.

But that’s just one stupid theory for one of my more inane pet peeves. I’ve lost sleep wondering how much a blink of an eye really is in geologic time. Is it five million years? 12,000? 78?

The answer, as it turns out, is none of these.

Here’s why: Assuming the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and the average life expectancy of a white man in New Zealand is 78 years (rounding down), then one year in geologic time is 1/78 of 4.5 billion, or 58.2 million years. A geologic month, then, is 1/12 of 58.2 million years, or 4.8 million years; and so on, subdividing time in like fashion down to .4 seconds, the average duration of a human blink.

Here, then, is a proper use of the blink-of-an-eye simile:

Woman-in-Labor: Finally. I thought this baby would never come out.

Helpful Physician: Ma’am, you might think nine-and-a-half months is a long time to be carrying around a baby, but it’s only a blink of the eye in geologic time. So get over yourself.

Now, applying my scale to some of the aforementioned stories, I come up with better and more accurate similes. For example:

In less than a human lifetime — roughly six blinks of a normal, non-catotonic human’s eye in geologic time — a way of life millenniums old will be lost here.

Here’s another one:

The Holocene epoch began 12,000 years ago, a mere feature-length movie called Bring it On starring Eliza Dushku in geologic time.

And finally:

Five million years is like the amount of time it took for my anti-psychotic meds to finally kick-in in geologic time.

Yes, unfortunately this is what I spend much of my time thinking about.



  1. I’m not touching this one. (let Moriah do it) I’m going back in the bottle.
    (crosses arms, bobs head and blinks)

  2. Great! Another Democratic ear mark. I think we should ask for a 20 million dollar grant and let them Jew us down to 2 billion. If they don’t have it they can print it. I just love the new socialism. It’s so campy.

  3. You’re right. It’s better not to spend any money to find out anything. For a second there I forgot how conservatives hold ignorance up as the highest virtue. If we need to know anything about anything, best just to ask the Fox News Network what we think.

    But don’t worry, this won’t be known as an earmark. We’ll just pile that $2 billion onto the Defense budget instead. As you know, outspending the entire rest of the world on Defense is in no way making government bigger, or printing money. It’s just all we can do to make sure our finances are used in the best interests of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce…uh, er, I mean, U-S-A, U-S-A….

    The best thing is we can easily drum-up $2 billion by selling the Department of the Interior to British Petroleum. Hell, they practically owned it already thanks to W. Imagine: privatizing government, expanding defense spending and disappearing that tiresome oil spill (exaggerated by the Liberal Media) all in one fell swoop. Talk about killing many birds with one stone.

  4. I dunno about conservatives or liberals or any of the coined descriptors used to describe one idiot from another. I am however, in total agreement that we should all step in line behing the Lemmings of the press and dutifully follow our government off a cliff because the messiah of our age tells us his is the only way to go. Perhaps living in NZ they don’t get U.S. news all that well, but if I read the papers correctly W hasn’t been President for almost two years now. Hussein on the other hand took a million dollars from the Bee Pee people so that when this happened ( they ALL knew it would eventually) he could sit on the sidelines playing golf while some 20,000 more people went on the unemployment dole. Such brilliant and decisive leadership. How glorious it must be to watch the oil inch closer and closer to land and people while turning down all help offered by countries who have had success dealing with their own horrible environmental disasters. We gave up an indiot in the White House for an Omnipotent, Omniscient deity who believes that the answer to every problem we have is to blame Bush. What a guy! What a God!
    That said, I am pitching a new board game to Slechow and Rider. There are twelve squares on the board all named for “crises” we suddenly have in this country. When you drop the dice and move your game piece, whatever square you land on, you must yell out in a blood curdling Tim Burton scream ” BLAME BUSH”. Then you get to call all the other players at the table racist because you disagree with the socialist policies of the day. It’s the family game of partisan bickering meant to end in a hail of gunfire. Good for the old folks, good for the kids.

    1. I wish people who thought like you said any of this stuff when Bush was president, when he was cutting taxes with no way to pay for it and no jobs to show for it in the end, when he was inventing a war out of thin air and not paying for it, when he was bailing out the banks and sticking us with the bill, and when he was creating a huge government pharmaceutical program and not paying for that either. Where the hell was this outrage back then? If you had any, I certainly didn’t hear of it the way I’m hearing about it now. (Of course, I didn’t have a blog before 2009, so…but still)

      What I’m saying has less to do with blaming Bush for current problems but about asking people who are suddenly afraid of deficits and “the direction this country is going” to show a little consistency. Otherwise, people like that just come off as cranky old farts (I mean, more than usual) and a little bit of an unthinking tool. It just doesn’t stand any test of reason that suddenly so many people come out against things that Obama stands for when in many respects he is very much like W., Reagan and Clinton. Reagan raised taxes and created deficit spending; Clinton actually balanced the budget. But I don’t hear that from people who are so outraged right now, leading me to think that those people really, in the end, don’t know what they’re talking about.

      One penultimate thing: I think you should read and learn about socialism before you use the word as a bludgeon. The way you use it now, you sound like Joe McCarthy.

      Lastly: this is the last on this subject for this particular blog entry. I have no interest in running a political forum. If you do, please feel free to start a blog of your own.

  5. Thanks Victoria for thinking I might have the capability to handle something!!!HAHA! You HAVE been hitting the bottle.

    1. Actually I was referencing “I dream of Genie” an old TV sitcom:she folds her arms, bobs her head as she blinks… and winds up back in her Genie bottle. Are you young or am I old……..answer: yes!

  6. Moriah, we have to have a talk about this drinking issue of yours. Since this is the only venuw you seem to communicate on, can you call your Uncle about the computer you discussed. And then can you look at these papers I have and tell me what to do?

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