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 […]

 

 

 

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.