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‘A Blink of an Eye, Astronomically’: What Does It Actually Mean?

Have humans only been around for "a blink of an eye"? How long did it take to form galaxies, blinkwise?

by
William M. Briggs

Bio

February 13, 2010 - 12:00 am
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One second is too short, as is one minute. How about a day? Does the ratio of one blink to one day feel the same as the ratio of one astro-blink to the age of the universe? It does to me.

People blink anywhere from 10 to 20 times a minute. Split the difference and say 15. Now, unless your like my crazy cousin Patrick, you don’t blink when you’re asleep. Blinking 15 times a minute in 16 waking hours translates into a whopping 14,400 daily eye flaps. Sans flirting, of course.

All that blinking sucks up about about one-and-a-third hours. And you thought you weren’t getting much done!

(An interesting side calculation would be to figure how much wind those blinks generate. After all, with each opening and closing, your eyelashes create a tiny breeze. Maybe, in the spirit of Green and to the solve the energy “crisis,” we could hook up tiny turbines over our brows. Anybody have Al Gore’s digits?)

Anyway, each day has 86,400 seconds — a number all who had college physics have memorized — and a ratio of that to 0.33333 seconds for a blink feels right for our reference. Which, by dividing, gives a ratio of 1 to 259,200.

We want that same ratio for astro-blinks to the age of the universe. Again, since we know the age, we can invoke algebra. This tells us that the length of an astro-blink is about 17 followed by eleven zeros, or 1,700,000,000,000 seconds.

That number is not larger than our budget deficit, which, given the context in which it was calculated, we are truly justified in calling astronomical. Or, better, and for fans of bad puns, we could say our economy is on the blink.

Back to work: You can verify on your own that 14 billion years in seconds divided by an astro-blink is 1 to 259,200.

An astro-blink is a long time. All those seconds work out to just over 54,000 thousand years for each flutter! That means that any event that happened over a 54,000-year period would occur in the “blink” of an eye, astronomically.

Humanity’s tenure, with respect to the age of the universe, is close to a “blink.” We’re only three to four blinks old. That means, if the universe wasn’t paying attention, we could have snuck up on it. Maybe we have, too, considering our lack of visitors.

But we do know that the first galaxies did not form in the blink of an eye. It took them 300 million years. That’s about 5,600 blinks, or just over a third of an “astro-day” (a full astro-day would have about 14,400 astro-blinks).

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William M. Briggs is a statistical consultant in New York and San Francisco. He is an American Meteorological Society member and serves on their Probability & Statistics Committee. His specialty is on the philosophy of evidence, forecast evaluation, and marketing.
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