# What is 30 years in the life of a nation?

An ABC news program this morning (1 June 1997), on the history of Israel, said something like
`30 years is a long time in the life of a person, but only a "micro-second" in the life of a nation'.

This of course fails even a cursory reality check.
Micro is 10-6, so if 106 seconds is claimed to be about 10^1 years (10 years), then one second (10^6 micro-seconds) is... 10^(6+1)... 107 years. 1 with 7 zeros. 10,000,000. 10 million years. So one second in the life of a nation is... 10 million years. Not.

But what is it really?

Well, how long does a nation last? Some nations were only created after World War II, say 50 years ago. The U.S. is roughly 200 years old. People started thinking of themselves as being "French" and "English" (rather than as Welsh or Norman) in the `middle ages', say some 500 years ago (1300's). Even the loosest concept of what it means to be a "nation" can only stretch things to a few thousand years. So multiples of 10 to 1000 years. Two orders of magnitude spread.

So what is 30 years to the life of a nation? Well, between 1 (ie all) and 1/100 of the life of a nation. 1 for a 30 year-old recent 20th century creation, 1/10 for a 300 year-old nation of empire or middle ages, 1/100 for a few oldies like the greeks.

So say we picture a nation as a person. Being born, growing up, growing old, and dieing. A real person's life is say 70 years. Then 1 or 1/10 or 1/100 of that is 70 or 7 or 0.7 years. So `30 years is "only" 70 or 7 or 0.7 years in the life of a nation'. (The 70 makes sense, because some people are older than some nations.) "History" is actually rather recent. 1 AD is only about 100 generations ago. `30 years' is something like 7 years in the life of the American colonies.

So what was the newsperson really trying to say?
`30 years is a long time in the life of a person, but only a "micro-second" in the life of a nation'.
Hmm, well if he meant the 50 year old state of Israel, that would be
`30 years is a long time in the life of a person, but only 30 years in the life of a nation'.
Maybe not. Perhaps a his "nation" is a couple of thousand year old Jewish tradition?
`30 years is a long time in the life of a person, but only some months in the life of an ancient religion'.
Perhaps that's it.

After all, its only... (confusing a microsecond (10^-6 sec), with some months (60*60*24*30*7, say 10^7 sec))... its only an error of 13 orders of magnitude. Sortof like confusing a one trillion dollar (\$10^12, \$1,000,000,000,000) national deficit with... a dime (10^-1, \$0.10). Ah well. Isn't watching the news fun?

John Allen Paulos, author of the `national bestseller' "Innumeracy - Mathematical illiteracy and its consequences", has also written "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper", with stories in a similar vein. I've done a web site on the kind of back of the envelope calculation I've done here.

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