Oracle Scratchpad

August 26, 2011

Big Numbers

Filed under: Non-technical — Jonathan Lewis @ 5:57 pm BST Aug 26,2011

It’s hard, sometimes, to get an instinctive idea of how big a “big number” really is. I’ve just heard a brilliant description of a billion (American style: 109) that really gives you a gut feeling for how big the number is:

If you owed someone a billion dollars, and paid it back at the rate of $1 per second – how long would it take to pay off the debt (and don’t even think about the interest accruing) ?

The answer is 34 years.

The way I read it, that turns a big number into a number that’s small enough to comprehend but big enough to feel enormous.

10 Comments »

  1. Crazy to think about that way.. Especially since the US deficit is currently 14,600 times that. Depressing…

    Comment by Craig — August 26, 2011 @ 6:13 pm BST Aug 26,2011 | Reply

    • The person I got it from was an Irish comedian talking about the Irish National debt, which is currently “only” 85 billion Euro.

      I thought it was interesting that he didn’t push the analogy to the full 85 billion, as that would have moved the time-frame out to 3,000 years which, I think, would have made it incomprehensible again.

      Comment by Jonathan Lewis — August 27, 2011 @ 5:31 am BST Aug 27,2011 | Reply

  2. I find a volume analogy easier to visualize than dripping dollars.

    Comment by jgarry — August 26, 2011 @ 10:11 pm BST Aug 26,2011 | Reply

    • That one doesn’t really work for me.

      I can’t visualized an olympic swimming pool, and certainly not filled with dollar bills – then I find it hard to imagine 539 of them, even thought it’s “only” 20 x 27.

      On the other hand I can imagine counting out dollars one per second, and I can recognise 34 years as a big chunk of my life – which happens to be my whole life up to the time my daughter was born.

      Comment by Jonathan Lewis — August 27, 2011 @ 5:29 am BST Aug 27,2011 | Reply

      • A nice way to help visualise the size of the US debt: http://usdebt.kleptocracy.us/

        Comment by Richard Foote — August 29, 2011 @ 12:38 pm BST Aug 29,2011 | Reply

        • That is a good viz, Richard!

          Interesting contrast in visualization ability, Jonathan. I have managed to overflow my swimming pool with a garden hose, after observing fill rate and approximating EOF. Then letting myself get sucked into the computer.

          The fact that both you guys can teach people with such a variety of learning styles is just amazing. That is the true meaning of guru.

          Comment by jgarry — August 29, 2011 @ 6:39 pm BST Aug 29,2011

  3. You know what?
    At the current pace, it will take me slightly more than 50 million years to match Larry Ellison’s fortune.
    Not that I am in a hurry to be honest.

    Comment by Flavio C. — August 27, 2011 @ 6:36 pm BST Aug 27,2011 | Reply

  4. It’s more like 31.7 years. => 1,000,000,000/60/60/24/365.

    And if you had a trillion dollars in debt, it would take you 31,709 years to pay. Now that’s a perspective.

    Comment by Reader — August 31, 2011 @ 1:45 pm BST Aug 31,2011 | Reply

    • Reader,

      Thanks – I didn’t realise that I was thinking in computer billions (230) when I did the arithmetic, but you’re right.

      The trouble with turning a trillion into 31,709 years is that no-one is going to feel the significance of that amount of time – beyond “big”. With something like 32 years you can say “that’s how long ago I bought my first microcomputer” – and really feel the scale.

      Comment by Jonathan Lewis — September 1, 2011 @ 4:23 pm BST Sep 1,2011 | Reply

  5. xkcd weighed in with an interesting chart. (Issa [right top under billions] lives a few miles from me when not in Washington.) Two Next’s on is Proof By Intimidation.

    Comment by jgarry — December 16, 2011 @ 8:22 pm BST Dec 16,2011 | Reply


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