A Number Beyond Imagination

I am a numbers person. Having studied math in college, I have always found all different manner of numbers, equations and formulas fascinating. There have been a lot of big numbers bandied about lately — usually with dollar signs bolted on to the front — and I got to thinking about how big those numbers are.

During all the talk about the $700 billion dollar bailout package, I wrote about
how big the number one billion is, what a billion dollars could buy and a few ways you could use to visualize such a number. Half that money has been spent (on what, no one seems to be quite sure) and the rest, $350 billion, is now being distributed with anyone and everyone slithering in to try to get a piece of it. I’m not so sure Gordon Gecko was right in the movie Wall Street. So far, greed has not proven to be all that good. At least not for the U.S.

Now we have The Stimulus Package; the $780 billion that’s meant to pull our collective a$$es out of the fire in which we find ourselves since the complete implosion of the economy. Combine that with the $350 billion and you get a number just north of one trillion dollars. But, what is a trillion? Most know it’s “a lot” but the number is so big most people can’t really comprehend it. Here are some things I found that give some sense of just how big this number is. Hint: It’s a whole lot bigger than even the billion I wrote about earlier.

Consider the humble dollar bill. It’s 2 ½ inches wide and 6 inches long and roughly as thick as a piece of paper. I have ten of them in my wallet at the moment and if I laid them together so they made a rectangle, they’d be about the size of a decent non-stick cookie sheet from amazon.com. I could buy six muffins down at The Coffee Stop on South Wilcox, a little over five gallons of gas or three medium drinks at Crowfoot Valley Coffee on Perry Street. Not a bad deal.

Let’s make the gargantuan leap to a trillion. What would a trillion dollars look like?

Considering that a ream of paper contains 500 sheets, if we had a ream of our cookie sheet sized rectangles we’d have $5,000 — Sweet! I could use that. To cover an American football field we’d need 44,400 of our stacks (I’ll let you do the math on the European football pitch of you’re a “soccer” fan.) That makes $222,000,000 — Even better, “hey, boss, I quit!” But let’s say we’re looking down at that football field covered with all that money, the looters haven’t come yet and we really want to get to a trillion dollars. (Incidentally, it’s only a trillion in the U.S. Most other places call it 1000 billion. We just insist on being different with our billions, trillions and funky systems of measurement) Since a ream of paper is 2 inches thick, to get to our goal, we’d have to add another 4,504 layers. You’d be looking at a stack of money the size of the football field
and as tall as a 19 story building. You’d be looking up.

A trillion seconds ago, some cave dwellers were painting on the walls at Chauvet Pont-d’Arc in France. These are the oldest known cave paintings. All they had to worry about was eating and staying alive…ah, the simple life.

It’s the 23rd of February, 2009. If you spent $1,000,000 a day from day zero of the Gregorian calendar, you’d still have 731 years, 6 months and 25 days to go before you spent a trillion dollars. In other words, you’d actually have to spend almost $1.4 million a day to spend your last dollar of $1 trillion today.

My home town of Castle Rock, CO is around 31.6 square miles in size. If I wanted to haul in a trillion marshmallows and spread them around, I’d be able to cover
all of Castle Rock — all of it, not just Castle Rock proper, but Castle Pines, Castle Pines Village, Founders, The Meadows…everything — in almost 8 inches of marshmallows. A trillion marshmallows would cover Denver, CO in two inches of puffed sugary goodness. Break out the chocolate and graham crackers and start a really big fire.

Whether there’s a dollar sign in front or not, a one with twelve zeros after it is a huge number. A billion is a large number. But 1000 billion? It’s really hard to imagine. Regardless of political leanings, I’m thinking we all need to hope like hell that it works.

Do You Really Know What a Billion Looks Like?

Unless you live under a rock you’ve no doubt heard of the work the U.S. government is doing to stop the bleeding in the financial system. The number most bandied about is seven hundred billion which everyone knows is a large number. But do we really understand how very large that number is? It seems it starts sounding like 200 billion or 800 billion or 500 billion. All those zeros kind of run together in one’s mind.

A few weeks back I wrote a piece about having everything and nothing in which I mentioned the odds of winning the lottery. Those odds pretty much approached zero which is a really small number. That’s not hard to conceptualize. You have some money, it gets syphoned off by greedy executives running some company, you have zero dollars. Simple. Hey, Bernie Ebbers, prison going ok for you? No? Good!

But what about the other end of the numbering spectrum? Infinity can be imagined, but it can’t be comprehended. It’s an incomprehensible number by definition. So what about a billion? Most people are familiar with it and know what it means in practice; 1 x 10(9), 1,000,000,000, The big B (I made that up). But can you visualize what it means? Can you look around and say, “oh, yeah, a billion is this, or a billion compares to that”? Most can’t…I can’t…so here are a few examples of billions of things that might assist you in grasping what they are talking about in Washington a little more clearly.

If you wanted to make a book with a billion dollar signs, printed 1,000 per page with pages printed on both sides, your book would be 500,000 pages long. A very long, boring book, to which you know the ending!

If you hopped in your time machine (you do have one, don’t you?) and went back in time a billion seconds, you’d end up somewhere in the neighborhood of January 11, 1977. Gerald Ford is your president and Carter comes in 9 days, Apple Computer just incorporated a few days ago and the iPod is almost 30 years away, Fleetwood Mac hasn’t yet released Rumors, Star Wars (you know, that first one with Luke The Bad-Haired Boy) won’t be released for another four and a half months.

If you decided to count to a billion, and you averaged 1 second per number, you’d be a little more than 31 years, 259 days older by the time you finished. Some who tried it would not make it.

A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.

A tightly-packed stack of new $1,000 bills totaling $1 billion would be 63 miles high. Airliners fly mostly between about 5.7 and 7.6 miles high.

If you wanted to spend a billion dollars (let alone $700 billion) in just a single year, you’d have to spend almost $32 a second…every second. Even when you were asleep. Bill gates would have to spend about $1792 if he wanted to get rid of his (approx.) $56 billion.

So what about the $700,000,000,000 they’re talking about on the East coast? Well, try this:

If you needed to spend that much in a single year, you’d have to spend almost $80,000 every hour to do it…24/7/365.

For each man woman and child, it’s the equivalent of what a person, on average, spent over the entire year of 2006 for gas.

It’s 12 Bill Gates.

It’s about half of the combined wealth of the Forbes 400 richest people.

James Cameron would have to make 381 movies as successful as Titanic in order to gross seven hundred billion dollars.

In today’s dollars, The Marshal Plan, the program back in 1944 developed to finance the recovery of Western Europe after World War II, would need to be multiplied seven time in order to bail us out now.

It is 9 times the amount spent on education in 2007.

You could buy 641,407,430 Big Macs every day for a year. Say ‘hello’ to obesity!

It is more zeros than are allowed on the dashboard calculator of the MacBook this is being written on.

According to some estimates, it is three times what it would cost, over 10 years, to reduce oil dependency by 20%.

It’s over twice the amount of all money given to all charitable organizations in the United States in any given year.

It is more than $100 for every person in the world.

If you had $700,000,000,000, were traveling in space and it cost you $1 a mile, you’d only have spent a little over half your money by the time you got to Pluto (I still think of it as a planet no matter what they say).

A big number right? And a shame. Because no one’s going to jail for putting us into a situation where we even have to be talking about $700,000,000,000. There are and will be some folks who will walk away (slink away?) and keep all the zeros in their bank accounts. Even though those bank accounts hold some of your money.

And don’t be fooled, when there is that much money in a single place, you can bet that there will be folks who will be slithering in with hoses that go to their banks. And they will do all they can to hook them up to that bucket of money. Don’t believe it? Just watch.