Sunday, January 4, 2009

How Big is a Trillion?

Recently we contemplated the smallness of 0.02 parts per billion. Today, we think big.

Unless you’ve got a hobby like hand-counting the U.S. national debt, it’s hard to grasp how much a trillion is. Even if you know that a trillion is a one followed by twelve zeros, and that such quantity is one thousand times larger than a billion, you only know the theory, not the practice, of a trillion.

My favorite source for making big numbers understandable is The MegaPenny Project. It illustrates a trillion and other biggish numbers in terms of an everyday item, the humble penny.

For perspective, nearly 50,000 pennies fit into a cubic foot. That doesn’t seem so big. But how about a trillion pennies? Visualize a city block containing a cube of pennies rising almost 300 feet in the air. That’s a trillion.

Or, to use a familiar object, think about the Empire State Building as a solid block of pennies. That’s 1.8 trillion.

The best way to experience the bigness of big numbers is to go through the MegaPenny Project sequentially, from a single penny to one quintillion. Unlike counting a quintillion pennies, it doesn’t take long, and each page has a clever visualization.

So go ahead and think big: Here is The MegaPenny Project start page.

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