Taking a moment… or a trillion

NPR did a story recently to try to help people grasp the numbers being discussed when it comes to the economy these days.  I’ve loved whimsical comparisons of apples to oranges ever since my grade school science teacher took us into the gym and laid out a rough, to-scale model of the solar system’s plants using:

  • The sun: A five-foot tall & wide balloon
  • Mercury: Marble
  • Venus: Tennis ball
  • Earth: Tennis ball
  • Mars: Pingpong ball
  • Jupiter: Basketball
  • Saturn: Soccer ball
  • Uranus: Baseball
  • Neptune: Baseball
  • Pluto (back when Pluto was still a planet): Marble

Outside on the playground, the solar system distances were laid out sort of to scale using a basketball for the sun, a pinpong ball for Jupiter, and marbles and BBs for the other planets.  About 1310 meters away (back when the metric system was still trying to gain a foothold) from the sun was tiny Pluto.  Wow, more than a football field away.  My young, non-athletically inclined mind was dazzled.

Sometime thereafter, a National Geographic came with the best map in the whole wide world, and farther than that actually:


It showed how our solar system (nestled down there on the right) fit into each succeedingly larger formation in space, right up to the known universe (the big column in the upper right).  I liked to stare at the map and think about how vast those outer reachers were, and how — in comparison, appearances notwithstanding — my colossal geekitude wasn’t that colossal.

So back to the economy.  NPR’s  Chana Joffe-Walt suggested that at a rate of counting out one dollar bill per second, it would take you 11 days to count out a million bills.  Not so bad.

But it would take 32 years to count out a billion dollars, and 3200 years (the beginning of cave drawings) to count out a trillion dollars.  In the comments section at NPR, reader Chipley broke it down thusly:

  • A dollar bill is 6 inches in length.
  • 1 mile is 63,360 inches, or 10,560 dollar bills long.
  • The sun is 94.5 million miles away from the earth.
  • If you were to line up dollar bills end to end, it would take 997,920,000,000 dollars to reach the sun. That is 997 billion 920 million dollars, or 2 billion dollars less than a trillion.
  • Given this analogy, our national debt is longer than 5 round trips to the sun.

Just to bogglefy the notion, I’ll add that light from the sun takes 8.3168708 minutes to reach Earth.  So if the light from the sun were to run out as quick as that trillion dollars, we’d be stuck in the dark in about 42 minutes.  Yeah, that wasn’t helpful at all, was it?

A trillion dollars would buy 1000 boxes of Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies for every person in America.  At 160 calories per 4-cookie serving (guessing at 24 cookies per box), that’s 960,000 — almost a million! — extra calories.  Since a pound of fat is about 3500 calories, that’d be 274 extra pounds — an extra American for every American.

Good thing we didn’t get those cookies.

A few months ago, NPR did a similar story with author David M. Schwartz, a numbers guy, who discovered that a stack of 100 $1 bills compresses to about a 1/2 inch.  A million dollars worth of $100 bills would stack about 4 feet high, while a billion dollars in $100 bills would tower 4000 feet high — about 3 Sears Towers.

And a trillion dollars in $100 bills would summit a staggering 789 miles high — about 144 Mt. Everests stacked end to end.

In good news, the Agriculture Department’s Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center found that mountain climbers burn an average of 5,148 calories per day on Everest.  Considering that an Everest climbing season is about 9 weeks, we could burn off that nearly a million extra Thin Mint calories — our portion of a trillion dollar cookie investment — in a mere 3 summitings.

Back to contemplating the universe.


3 thoughts on “Taking a moment… or a trillion

  1. I’m a huge fan of representations such as this, Jessa — and have done the solar system layout myself with my youngest dd (we homeschool). This is way cool…guess what we’ll be reading together tomorrow? 🙂 Thanks for sharing it!

  2. While contemplating the physical size of a trillion in relation to the universe, is a good way to consider such a number, the taxes method is even eerier.

    If there are 2 million households with an average income of 50,000 per year, the IRS funnels $30,000,000,000 to the government each year. So if we didn’t have to pay for the actual government costs (politicians wages, perks, housing & travel) the American people could pay this debt in a few years.

    So the more people who work, the faster it’s paid, because the bigger drain on the budgets is unemployment and social services. The less citizens are draining those funds and instead contributing taxes, the better. Or at least that’s what I think is the logic. Get people earning wages that can be taxed, instead of people getting government handouts to stay alive. So economically, the budget works, if it actually does what it’s supposed to do…. We’ll all get to see what transpires, and in the next few years too!


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