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So many zeros, so little time

March 6, 2009

If you’ve been watching the news lately, vertigo might have set in on account of the dizzying billions and trillions of dollars being flung about every which way. It seems endless, this procession of bail-outs, deficits, and downright hand-outs.

As you’ve always suspected, there’s a reason alarm bells start dinging in the depths of your already belabored subconscious whenever the business news comes on TV.

Here’s an easy way to wrap your mind around those numbers and the string of zeros that invariably follow:

John Allen Paulos (mathematician extraordinaire and prolific author of such edifying books as “A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market“, and “Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man“) has you try the following thought experiment in his fantastic book “Innumeracy“.

  • Without actually calculating, try to guess how long a million seconds is. 
  • Then do the same for a billion seconds.


  • 1 million seconds = less than 12 days
  • 1 billion seconds = almost 32 years

Unfortunately, all those zeros amount to something after all.

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