Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How to understand billions... trillions....etc....

As the financial wheels keep on spinning over, I tried to give you an idea of the scale involved here. Most people have no conception of how large the difference is between millions, billions, trillions.

Time does a much better job helping people conceive of the size, using time instead of space.

The genius of our numbering system is that we can signify massive quantities in short spaces. One billion takes no longer to write than one million, points out Andrew Dilnot, an economist at Oxford University and author of The Numbers Game.

But that similarity trips us up when it comes time to imagine how those figures translate to the real world, where three more zeroes make all the difference. "My favorite way to think of it is in terms of seconds," says David Schwartz, a children's book author whose How Much Is A Million? tries to wrap young minds around the concept. "One million seconds comes out to be about 11 and a half days. A billion seconds is 32 years. And a trillion seconds is 32,000 years. I like to say that I have a pretty good idea what I'll be doing a million seconds from now, no idea what I'll be doing a billion seconds from now, and an excellent idea of what I'll be doing a trillion seconds from now."

So when we're talking about a deficit of $1.2 trillion dollars, if we counted those dollars at a rate of one per second, we'd get done counting in the year 40,409 (A.D., assuming humans still exist and are using the same calendar system).

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