A Billion and Counting

How do we comprehend large numbers, and what values do we place on them? When numbers get very large or tiny, we tend to make analogies for comparison, so we better understand their relevance. We use phrases such as, “heavy as an elephant,” or “as light as a hummingbird.” Carl Sagan described the age of our universe to a calendar year; we showed up around New Year’s Eve.

Should we stack one billion U.S. dollar bills, it would reach a height of nearly sixty-eight miles. One trillion dollar bills would reach one-fourth the way from earth to the moon. The U.S. government collected three trillion tax dollars from its people in 2016. If I took that revenue to the mall and went bonkers spending $20 per second, it would take me more than 4,500 years to blow it all.

The largest prime number, discovered in 2016, has over 22 million digits. A prime number can only be divided evenly by 1 and itself. Therefore 5 is a prime number, but 6 can be divided by 1,2,3 and 6, so it is not a prime number. I wonder what effect our exposure to large and small numbers has on our brain? Did it, on a subconscious level, influence our reaction to information, beliefs, and how we automatically filter everything coming through our five senses? As a student, I turned off to equations and complex calculations. Multiplying or adding modestly sized columns of numbers in my head came easily. As we now are bombarded with figures on people’s lives lost through natural disasters, war, crime, and illness, I felt my immediate reaction to such news involved mixed emotions.

Do my feelings about human tragedy fluctuate with numbers? Was the loss of life comprehended differently by my brain as numbers varied? I believe we are all equal beings, so I didn’t want to judge the severity of deaths based on how many died. If psychologists believe young people are impacted by watching violent video games and movies, how have I changed in reacting to the meaning of numbers?

A billion. A trillion. A googol. From cells, micro-organisms, and galaxies, we also contemplate six degrees of separation, one pill three times a day, an avalanche burying three skiers, a child abandoned in the cold, an earthquake taking twenty lives. Was I making a mountain out of a molehill?

I can’t visualize a million people without electricity. Seeing an image of five people perched on their roof during a flood, I can relate to emotionally. Our values, culture, and even mood will affect how we interpret numbers. My car payment over 180 months may appear easier to manage than one over 15 years. Maybe I respond automatically to prices that end with .99, as it seems less expensive.

Paul Slovic, University of Oregon professor, looked at how people respond to humanitarian tragedies. When a disaster claims many lives, he noted that we care less than if a tragedy claims only a few. When there are many victims, we find it easier to look the other way. Slovic said people probably are inappropriately — and unconsciously — using a similar metric in humanitarian crises: Failing to save only half the victims in a tragedy seems less dreadful than failing to save 93 percent of the victims of another disaster. The mathematical side of our brain could tell us the absolute number of victims saved is more important than the percentage of survivors, but our analytical side isn’t usually in charge.

Congratulations! Let’s imagine you have joined Forbes’ roster of the world’s billionaires. To count to only three billion would take you one hundred years. Scientists estimate that my build of average body weight contains over thirty-seven trillion cells. My brain has about one hundred billion cells.

I’m more conscious now of news reports, political statements, advertising, and financial experts whose authors are likely well versed in how we comprehend their information. Ironically, the murderous Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is quoted as remarking that “A single death is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.” The power of ‘one’ begins with ourselves and how we choose to see the world around us. Instead of filling my head with media sound bites, I’m practicing being more discerning and observing. Vallarta and its people reflect a paradise to go on such a journey.