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The Numbers Game: Just How Big is a Million?

 

A trillion people?

A trillion people?

As the weeds emerge in my spring garden I tell my husband that there are millions of them, maybe billions. Sometimes I think there are trillions. Of course I know there are not anywhere near that number but saying a big number makes my weeds seem very formidable and when I finally get rid of them all (all trillion of them) I will feel very good indeed.

With the politicians talking about millions, billions, and trillions it becomes more important to understand just how big these numbers are so I pulled out a little exercise I used to use with my freshmen world history class on the size of numbers.

If I gave you a million dollars in $1 bills, how long would it take for you to count them if you counted them one per second and did not stop for anything?

If I gave you a billion dollars in $1 bills, how long would it take for you to count them if you counted them one per second and did not stop for anything?

If I gave you a trillion dollars in $1 bills, how long would it take for you to count them if you counted them one per second and did not stop for anything?

Check at the bottom of this page. Were you surprised? My students always were and frankly I was too, every year even though I repeated the exercise eight times a year. So, next time you think that you have a million, or a billion, or a trillion of something perhaps the reality of the numbers will tickle your mind.

(Answers: million= 12 days; billion= 32 years; trillion= 32,000 years, longer than there has been civilization on earth.)

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