Wow!  Huge, big, sizable and ginormous!


When I was growing up, a millionaire was a rare thing, a big deal. My older brother explained to me that a million was a thousand a thousand times. Like a thousand marbles in a bucket, and 999 more buckets just like it. A million pennies, he told me, equaled ten thousand dollars. These were all big numbers to me. I could count- theoretically- as high as I wanted to, but had never really gotten past a couple of hundred, and all that would really fit in my brain was maybe a thousand. Since I was 8 years old, that number had the most real-world meaning to me, the rest were abstract, though I didn’t know that word at the time. Like looking upward from the foot of a really tall ladder, after a relatively short distance, it just fades into a blur named “way up there”.

Sometime in middle school science class, we started with scientific notation, which is a convenient way to express powers of ten. That’s a fancy way of saying how many zero’s are at the end of a number: 100 is ten to the 2, 10,000 is ten to the 4, a million is ten to the 6, etc. This method shortens the ladder by making the rungs closer together the higher you go. It makes it easy to talk about big numbers but the price is the loss of awesomeness. Going to each larger kind of number becomes a step. A Thousand to a Million is going from 10^3 to 10^6, from 3 to 6. Not so big. Million to a Billion is 6 to 9. So what. M to B.

At about the same time, I became aware of the scale of government, where stuff happens with billions of dollars. Billions. A thousand thousand thousand. A Thousand Million. Imaging a thousand marbles in a bucket. Now imagine a row of a thousand such buckets. That’s a million marbles. Now imagine a thousand rows of a thousand buckets of a thousand marbles each. That’s a million buckets, and a billion marbles.
Through the 60s and 70s and 80s, we heard a lot about cold war stockpiles, usually in terms of how each side had the capability to blow up the whole world a certain number of times over. Russia could wipe us out 500 times, but we were ahead because we could wipe them out 800 times. And sometimes these numbers would be converted into equivalents of millions of tons of tnt or dynamite, as if I could distinguish a small deafening boom that killed me from a large deafening boom that killed me. We all sort of got used to thinking in absurdities like that, because there really was no alternative.
So now, in the late Tendies (the decade after the nineties), we have a financial crisis that puts the word trillion into common usage. A trillion is 1 followed by 12 zero’s, or a thousand Billion, or a Million Million, or a thousand thousand thousand thousand. Now we’ve gone from 6 to 9 to 12, from M to B to T. The ladder got taller, but it did so starting miles up in the sky where it was a smudgy blur to start with.

A trillion. A thousand marbles in each bucket, a row of a thousand buckets, 1000 columns such buckets in a huge 1000×1000 bucket square. That’s a billion (with a B). Now make a vertical stack of such squares 1000 buckets high. That’s a billion buckets and a trillion marbles.

I’ve been working with these numbers and these concepts for many many years, and just explaining all these ladders, buckets and marbles makes me tired. For non-numerically oriented people, this must be just gibberish. I think it is a rare person indeed who can actually comprehend how much a billion is, much less a trillion. I think most people think a trillion is just “bigger than a billion”, and a billion is just “bigger than a million”, and a million is just “big”. What scares me most is that there are a lot of people making decisions based on these numbers, and I cannot imagine that these are rational decisions because I don’t think these decision makers really know a Million from a Billion from a Trillion, other than M, B, and T.

Q anyone?