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.


  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:

        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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