Millions and Trillions

This is a post originally published here 30 December 2003.

I am not exactly the most “normal ” person in the world but the fate of such would rather bore me. This is piece of work should serve to prove that point. It is actually an essay I wrote for a class assignment.

So I am rather comfortable with ” not being normal ” . After all if I were such, what part of that .5 dog would I own? Safe to bet, I would not get the better end of the deal. Most people my age are more concerned with their house, and car payments, than I am.

I tend to dwell in the more abstract and bizarre frets and worries. For example, how much is one million or one billion? I am well aware that these are rather large numbers but how can I get a handle on them?

If one wishes to find out what something is, a good place to start is the dictionary. A million is defined as a ” thousand thousands ” or ” 1,000,000″ . My next logical step would be to try and visualize it. Since we are dealing with numbers lets start with a number line.

Assume each hash mark is one centimeter, therefore 100 centimeters equals one meter. So how long is our one million centimeter line? 10,000 meters or 10 Kilometers would be correct. Metric units are so kind

Despite the kindness of metric units I am still not helped much? I was born American and am rather stuck on English units. Convert it to miles and it is 6.214 miles. I still don’t get any feel for it but having been involved in long distance running, I’ll take that route.

My best two mile run ever was a 13:13 (I said I was involved not any good.) For the sake of this essay, let’s assume I downed a bottle of Wunderdog vitamins and lost the 13 seconds. At 13 minutes every other mile it would take me just over 40 minutes, one tank of oxygen, two paramedics and one very fast ambulance to transverse the distance.

I said I WAS involved in distance running. The thought of actually doing so at my age actually induces shin splints. What if I actually did run it? Would it help? Not for me.

I just took a large number of really small distances put them next to each other for a very large cumulative distance. It doesn’t seem to help me picture it. This many small to large approach fails to give me a good image of a million.

I would merely end up fatigued, hospitalized and just as confused with added medical bills to a stressed budget that I tend to ignore by distracting myself with problems such as these.

I already knew that six miles would hospitalize me. How could I more tangibly visualize a million? At the end of the next sentence this document is 508 words long and just under one page. Let us assume that I am going to type 500 words per page.

This will make for easy math. At 500 words the reader has one page of my rhetoric. If we assume that my words per page would remain about the same and average to 500 per page, how many pages would it take me to write one million words?

My TI-83 tells the answer is 2000 pages! This is starting to give me an idea of the magnitude of one million. I just happen to have a fresh bale of 20 pound printing paper in my hand and it measures a little over two and one-quarter inches thick and contains 500 sheets of paper. This means one million words would consume 4 bales and be nine inches thick! That is about as much paper as I use in one year.

If I were to type at 80 words per minute (in my dreams) it would take 520.83 days (about one year and four months) of continuous typing to reach such a figure. (Also 9478 liters of Coca-Cola, 16,000 over-writes, 36 bottles of aspirin for my carpel tunnel syndrome and 6700 trips to the rest room to rid myself of all that Coke.) It is hard to believe that Abe Lincoln actually penned over one million words using a quill.

How about a trillion? How big is that? A trillion is a million times a million or 1,000,000,000,000. For the sake of equal comparison, I will use the same examples. One trillion centimeters is the equivalent of 10,000,000 Kilometers in the kind metric world. I don’t think running this is a realistic option for that is about 15 round trips to the moon or about two-thirds the mean distance to the sun. To be fair on the comparisons, lets look at my 6.5 minute mile. 6,214,000 miles would be completed in 4,039,100 minutes or 673,183.33 hours or roughly 28,049.3 days which, ignoring leap years, is 76.85 years. This is more time than it takes Haley’s Comet to complete one orbit. For this run, I would need only two things, a coffin and the appropriate hole in the ground for it.

Unlike the previous attempt, the distance running seems to impress me with the magnitude of a trillion. For the sake of thoroughness, lets move on to my writing magnitude. Let’s forget about how thick? Let’s just look at the time for that seems to make it clear to me. I would take 208,333,333.3 hours, 8,680,555.56 days, 23,847.68 years (again ignoring leap years) or 238 centuries to type such and essay at 80 words per minute. Although this helps only very little to fully comprehend the magnitude of a trillion, it certainly makes the 1000 word essays for assignments and scholarships look much less intimidating.