1 trillion is a far bigger number than you realize





Big numbers get bandied about so casually these days — thousands, millions, billions, trillions — that we tend to lose a sense of their true meaning. They all seem to blur together as if the differences among them are almost negligible.

Almost nobody, for example, seems to have been terribly surprised at President Trump’s stated desire to spend a trillion dollars to rebuild America’s infrastructure. A trillion dollars!  That’s a lot of money,  but big numbers don’t shock us as much anymore.

In a blog post I wrote on this subject about nine years ago, I found it convenient to explain the differences among big numbers by expressing them in terms of seconds rather than dollars or any other units of measure.

Consider this: A thousand seconds will pass within the next 17 minutes. A million seconds will lapse before the end of this month. A billion seconds ago, Ronald Reagan was president.

But the jump from a billion seconds to a trillion seconds is far, far greater than you might expect.

A trillion seconds ago, nobody on the planet could read or write, none of the great religions had yet emerged and Neanderthals (the early ones, not the Trump supporters) were camping out in what is now Europe. There was no written history. The pyramids had not yet been built. It would be 10,000 years before the cave paintings in France were begun, and saber-toothed tigers were still prowling the planet.

The moral of the story here is that the word “trillion” is not one we should casually bandy about without thinking of its true meaning. A trillion is not just a bunch of billions. Its a whole different world.

A. Whole. Different. World.



1 Comment

  1. Viking Kitten

    The difference between a million and a billion is like the difference between $1 and $1000. The difference between a million and a trillion is the difference between $1 and $1,000,000. If you are working on the scale of trillions, a billion is basically rounding error, which is a fact politicians count on most people not thinking about when they perform their budget demagoguery.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *