...and why it won't matter that everyone will celebrate
Upshot: Saying that 2010 is the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon is just a little error in calculating elapsed time and it's no big deal when race organizers are sloppy with elapsed time calculations.
The 2,500th anniversary of the original 490 B.C. marathon run will be 2011, not 2010. It's the missing Year Zero again, but this time there's no controversy. Missing Year Zero may have spawned hopeless arguments on the definition of "new millennium," but it can't alter counting. There is no way to count the years between 490 B.C. and 2010 and come up with 2,500. (See the full count.)
Yet, newspaper editors from San Diego to Bangalore--including the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune--are one year off in their count as the anniversary approaches.
The miscount surfaced during the 2004 Athens Olympics, when the marathon followed the original route of the messenger (Phidippides or Pheidippides) after the Battle of Marathon. Some newspapers reported the first run as "2,494 years earlier." Internet searches at the time found no correct reports of 2,493 years.
You cannot simply add the years BC to the current year. Here are some questions to better understand the underlying confusion:
After answering "year 1" for for the one-year-old girl, it's clear that the two-year-old boy was born a year earlier in 2 B.C.
If you answered "year 1" for the 491st anniversary, then you've got a scheduling problem for the 490th anniversary. One can't let arithmetic get in the way of simple counting.
And don't be expecting to see Chac-Mool reclining in the stands and rooting for Harold Abrahams. Both Mayans and Jews have calendars that start before 490 B.C., so they count better. (Chac-Mool has some calamitous calendar problems starting in 2012, so the 2011 anniversary may be the last chance to see him at a sporting event.) Some Buddha-based calendars also started before the battle.
Judging by newspaper reports, we can expect a false start in the marathon anniversary celebration. Still, the happy lesson of the "new millennium" controversy will apply ten years later: Precision cannot prevent a celebration. Here are some suggestions if you've already planned a commemoration in 2010:
Why were there no published corrections for the counting error in 2004?
The short answer is that 2,494 is very, very close to 2,493 for all practical purposes. No one was seriously misinformed or confused as a result of the error. An error in time measurement of 1 in 2,494 is the equivalent of celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary one weekend early. No mathematically-inclined guest is going to stand up and say, "Hey, we can't celebrate yet!" And no one else will care one epsilon.
That said, I did email a correction to firstname.lastname@example.org on June 13, 2004, but it wasn't published.
The newspaper editors did make one genuine mistake: what John Allen Paulos calls "Meaningless Precision" in "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper." While the time span is not misleading, the precision is. Such extreme precision implies careful, indisputable research. The publication is trying to appear more authoritative than it merits. A skeptical reader should ask, "What other statements in this newspaper are not as accurate as what is written?"
Radio programs did not make this mistake--not because of higher standards, but undoubtedly because of syllables. The impressive (albeit wrong) number 2,494 takes no more ink or column-inches than than the rough figure 2,500. "Two Thousand Four Hundred Ninety Four" needs 50% more radio time than "Two Thousand Five Hundred".
Why were there no correct reports of 2,493 years?
This is the easy question. As John Allen Paulos noted, this precision is meaningless. If you are mathematically sophisticated enough to know that it was 2,493 years, then you are also mathematically sophisticated enough to know that such precision doesn't matter. Those who understood simply said "almost two thousand five hundred years" or "twenty-five centuries" or "two and a half millennia" or "long ago." All of those measurements are accurate. Even "twenty-five hundred years" is accurate because the implied unit of measurement is "hundreds of years." If you know what you're talking about, you don't need phony precision in order to appear as if you know what you're talking about.
Here are some articles from 2004 that inaccurately stated that 490 B.C. was 2,494 years earlier, all found on the web. There were surely more in the print-only media or subscription-only media. It's unfair of me to single out these examples. These media published their articles freely on the web. The more-secretive media not listed are--if anything--more likely to have this error.
New York Times
June 13, 2004
"A Frantic Sprint to the Finish on the Ancient Marathon Route"
"Pheidippides had no idea of the mess he would cause with his legendary victory run 2,494 years ago." (opening sentence)
International Herald Tribune (owned by the New York Times)
June 14, 2004
"Historic marathon course ending in a sprint"
(same article as appeared in the N.Y. Times)
Deccan Herald (Bangalore, India)
July 29, 2004
"Reliving 490 BC in Marathon"
"Seven days later, on the last evening of the competition, their male counterparts will retrace the tracks of Phidippides all those 2,494 years ago, to close the Athens Games — history made flesh."
Die Welt (Germany)
Aug. 21, 2004 (dateline)
"Angeblich sei der erste Marathon vor 2494 Jahren schon bewältigt worden, als ein Läufer seine Siegesmeldung nach Athen trug."
San Diego (California, USA) Union-Tribune
Aug 28, 2004 (dateline)
"The Marathon Myth"
"They'll also run past the plain of Marathon itself, where the great battle was fought 2,494 years ago."
Miami (Florida, USA) Herald
Aug. 29, 2004 (dateline)
"Marathon provides unusual end to unusual Games"
"Exhausted, dehydrated runners refused to quit until their mission was accomplished, just as the famous messenger soldier did 2,494 years ago."
The problem continues past 2004:
Toronto (Ontario, Canada) Star
July 1, 2005 (dateline)
"Medical experts have been studying the impact of marathon running on the body almost since Pheidippides famously dropped dead 2,495 years ago after running 42 kilometres in full armour from Marathon to Athens to deliver the message that the Athenians had defeated the invading Persian army."
The better-than-fiction irony:
Accuracy in Media website
Feb. 22, 2005 (date posted)
"Why Are We Afraid of the Search For Truth?"
"Among the better-known ancient messengers is Pheidippides, who 2495 years ago ran about 26 miles to Athens to deliver his message that the Athenians had bested the Persians in battle, and who then died of exhaustion."
This "Accuracy in Media" is extra-delightfully ironic because the approximate "about 26 miles" is accurate, but the precise "2495 years" is not.
Web page by Dan Axtell
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