Graeme Newell

Large Numbers

We humans are a smart group, but we really stink at comprehending large numbers. This is because counting is a relatively new behavior for humans. Early humans needed only basic counting to survive. This usually topped out at figuring out the number of people in the clan, or how many animals were in a herd.

This basic lack of skill causes us to make crazy bad predictions about big-numbered things like national debts, space travel, time, distances and pretty much everything else associated with large numbers.

Visionaries like Elon Musk talk about humans becoming a multi-planetary species. The nearest possibly habitable planet would require a 73,000 year journey through the crazy hazardous environment of deep space. This just ain’t happening, no matter how good our technology gets. We still kid ourselves that it’s possible because our brain just can’t imagine the vast distance of 4 light years, 30 trillion miles.

How can you get better at comprehending the scale of large numbers? The key is to start with a number you can intrinsically understand and then scale it up.

Too big: The US national debt is $26 trillion.
Better: That’s $74,000 per US household.

Too big: Outer space begins at 327,000 feet above the surface of the earth.
Better: That’s about 60 miles, a distance all of us can understand because we’ve driven that distance.

Too big: 438,000 people die from malaria each year.
Better: That’s three fully loaded 747s crashing each and every day for a year.

By the way, it takes approximately 300 million marbles to fill up an average sized room. If you poured one gallon of marbles in the room every ten seconds, it would take you approximately 17 days to fill the room.