Friday, February 12, 2010

Playing With Numbers

The problem with big numbers is that, once they get big enough, they lose their meaning. People need a frame of reference, something with which to compare, in order to have any understanding of scale. One common trick is to express numbers which measure size, volume or distance in terms of time. People seem better able to relate to the passage of time than they are to size. That's how the concept of the light year arose. Tell someone that the nearest star (excluding the sun, of course), Proxima Centauri, is 39,900,000,000,000 kilometers away, and you generally get a blank stare, even if you express that number as "39.9 trillion". The human mind can't comprehend that big a distance. Say that Proxima Centauri is 4.22 light years away, and it becomes clearer. Ah! So even light, which we know travels very, very fast, would still take a little over 4 years to get from here to there. Now we have a frame of reference.

Someone sent me an interesting spreadsheet this week. You enter your birthday, and it tells you exactly how long you've been alive, in years, months, days, weeks, minutes and even seconds. According to this spreadsheet, at the moment that I typed my birthday and pressed Enter, I had been alive for exactly 1,492,450,707 seconds. That's just under one and a half billion seconds. That got me thinking; if someone had been handing me one dollar bills at the rate of one per second from the moment I was born up until the present, I'd have about one and a half billion dollars to my name. Can I think of anybody who has that kind of money? Of course I can.

Everybody loves to pick on Bill Gates, so why should I be an exception? At the time of this writing, he's worth about 40 billion dollars. A person would have to live to the age of 1,269 years and earn a dollar per second during that entire time to come up with that kind of money. Question: Does any one person need or deserve that kind of money? I don't mean to trivialize Mr. Gates' contributions to society and I acknowledge his philanthropic endeavours. It just seems absurd to me that any one person should be rewarded that richly, regardless of what they've done. Nobody needs that kind of money. It's gross over-compensation. Of course, Mr. Gates is not the sole member of the world's Billionaire's Club.

As I write this, Canada's national debt stands at about 512 billion dollars. If the country paid down its debt at the rate of a dollar per second, it would take a little over 16,235 years to eliminate it. Does that much money exist in the world? If not, how did Canada manage to borrow it?

Of course, Canada's national debt pales in comparison to the United States' debt of about 12.3 trillion dollars at time of this writing. You see what I mean? You get to the point where it just seems surreal, doesn't it?

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