Point of View

July 25, 2014

A Trillion
by Kerby Anderson


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We have a problem when it comes to understanding the numbers we use when talking about the trillions of dollars in government spending and our national debt. Most of us have no mental category for the word trillion. When I talk about this, I try to explain how big the number is by saying that a trillion is a thousand billion. I don't know if that helps much. Here are some other ideas.

A few years ago, Jeremy Harper made news when he counted to one million in front of a webcam. He took sleep breaks, so it took him 89 days. But a million is really a very small number. One trillion is actually one million million. If someone wanted to count to a trillion (counting one number per second and taking no breaks), it would take 32,000 years.

Here's another example: America has not even been around a trillion seconds. Western civilization has not been around a trillion seconds. All of recorded history is less than a trillion seconds.

To understand trillion you probably need to use examples from astronomy. How long would it take to travel a trillion miles? Even traveling at the speed of light, it would take two months. However, if you took a trillion one-dollar bills and laid them end-to-end, they would reach from the Earth to the sun.

While we are using astronomical illustrations, let's consider our own galaxy. Our solar system is just an incredibly small part of the Milky Way galaxy. Some estimate that our galaxy has about 100 billion stars (though some say it has even more). If we use the number 100 billion, we would need ten galaxies like the Milky Way to equal a trillion stars.

I think you get the point. We have lost track of how big these numbers are. It is worth remembering the next time you hear that the federal budget is $3.5 trillion and the national debt is over $17 trillion.




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