Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Billion Here, a Billion There . . .

Or the problem of really big numbers. From a Times magazine article on the deficit:

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 does, 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 zeros 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 11½ 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."

For the full article:


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