Sunday, March 15, 2009

Visualizing Really, Really Big Numbers

A week or so ago over at Out of My Hat, John tried to put the enormous numbers we hear about in the context of the economic crisis into some perspective, relating a trillion dollars to how long ago a trillion seconds was ... if you're too lazy to read his very interesting post, a trillion seconds is "just over 31,688 years."

Well, Numeric Life he isn't, and he's certainly not as beautiful as our fill-in number lady Amanda (in my opinion only, of course, not wanting to incur Chris's wrath), but he's done a very respectable job of trying to make an unimaginable number somehow understandable. Nevertheless, I am a visual - not a numeric - person, and I could use a bit more visual explanation of a trillion dollars. Happily, John thoughtfully provided that, too, offering a link to this gem at a site called What does one TRILLION dollars look like?

If you don't want to actually visit the site (although you should, because it's worth it), the idea is this: we begin with a single $100 bill, the largest in general circulation. We then move on to a standard bank package of 100 Benjamins, or $10,000, which is about a half-inch thick and easily carried. A million dollars would take 100 packages of C-notes - a relatively small pile that can easily be carried in an ordinary shopping bag....

...and it goes up from there to visualize a hundred million, then a billion, and finally a trillion dollars. At each level starting with $1,000,000, a normal-sized person is shown standing next to the pile of money for comparison.

You will probably be as amazed as I was.

Nowadays we are bombarded with sums so vast that they're beyond comprehension, so huge we often don't even bother to say the entire amount. Real estate signs advertise homes "from the low 400's," knowing that saying "four hundred twenty-five thousand dollars" might scare off some people. Or not.

In the Pentagon and other government offices, we often talk about "a hundred K," with each K meaning one thousand dollars. Small numbers of millions (as if a million is a small number in itself) are sometimes referred to as rounding-off errors or decimal dust.

In his novel Hannibal, Thomas Harris imagines a conversation between venal FBI official Paul Krendler and multi-billionaire Mason Verger, in which Krendler is seeking Verger's help in funding his Congressional campaign:

"Are you saying you can help me?"
"I can help you with half of it."
"Let's not just toss it off like 'five.' Let's say it with the respect it deserves - five million dollars."

Good advice. Let's say our numbers with the respect they deserve, particularly when we're discussing amounts of money so vast that they're nearly beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. And when they represent sums that our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will inherit as our legacy.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



The Mistress of the Dark said...

Number just don't get in Aretha and her purdy gray hat.

Mike said...

At least we're not to the point of carrying all our money around with us in duffel bags. Yet.

fiona said...


Amanda said...

It looks like I'm not giving enough respect to the Ruppiah :). I usually don't say the "thousand" at the end of prices. Everything here is in the thousands of Ruppiah and I usually just say "two hundred and fifty" or "five" etc....