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.