How Many Zeros in a Gazillion?
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
For your weekend edification I offer a math lesson. In this class everyone passes (self-esteem is more important than learning, after all) and there will be no quiz. I can furnish this tutorial because my favorite news digest, The Week, in its February 27 issue provides an excerpt from a book I’d like to say I’m going to read, but probably won’t, since my reading pile is taller than I am and I’m four inches taller than the average American woman.
The book (I wish I could absorb it intravenously) is The Numbers Game. It’s by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot, and it’s published by Gotham/Penguin (2009). I found its technique for understanding the practical meaning of a billion both understandable and worth sharing.
Unless you’re Nate Silver, genius blogger at fivethirtyeight.com, or my grandson the theoretical mathematician (he didn’t get it from me,) the billions and trillions our government is handing around probably don’t have a lot of meaning to you — except that you know they add up to real money. Hence this excerpt, to help you get the concepts under control.
Millions, billions…if they all sound like the same thing, one useful trick is to imagine those numbers as seconds. A million seconds is about 11.5 days. A billion seconds is nearly 32 years.
What you usually need, though, is a way to think about a number on a human scale. Often, if you divide a big number by all the people it is supposed to affect, it becomes strangely humble and manageable.
A convenient number to help in this sort of calculation is 15.6 billion (15,600,000,000), which is the U.S. population (300 million) multiplied by 52, the number of weeks in a year. This is about how much the U.S. government needs to spend annually on any program for the program to cost $1 per American citizen per week. Divide any public spending announcement by 15.6 billion to gauge its real size.
To which I add the following:
A billion is a thousand million, written as 1 plus nine zeros. (This is true in the U.S. The British have it differently.)
A trillion is a million million, written as 1 plus 12 zeros.
When government spending gets into the trillions, as it soon will, do the calculation for billions described above and add three zeros.
For our next lesson we’ll learn the difference between a jillion and a gazillion. Class dismissed.
Posted on February 27th, 2009 by Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Filed under: Uncategorized