How much is $700 billion? (Part II)

Published on Thursday, October 02, 2008 in , , ,

US$315 billionMy previous post, How much is $700 billion?, proved so popular and generated so much discussion, that I'm able to bring you more visualizations of $700 billion.

In that last post, we finished with visualizing $700 billion in pennies, so let's start with dollars this time. This site will show you what $315 million looks like in $1 bills. Picture another stack of the same size right next to it, and then a third stack that's between 1/4th and 1/5th of the size of either of the others stacks, and you'll have $700 billion.

Next, let's move from real money, like pennies and dollar bills, to counterfeit money. What would it take if you decided to print $700 billion in counterfeit bills out on your inkjet printer? Frank Gibson describes this apporach in disturbing detail over at That Blog Frank Used to Have. While I don't suggest actually trying this, the process is fun to visualize.

700 billion of anything is large, so what about applying this to other units besides money?

Let's try it with distances. If you were 700 billion meters from Earth, you would get this view:

That bright spot in the middle of the picture is the sun, and those rings represent the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Mars and Earth.

If this picture looks familiar then you've probably seen the Powers of 10 video. Their photo of 1 trillion meters from Earth was edited down to 70% of the area to make that view. If that still doesn't impress upon you how far 700 billion meters is, start at the sun here, and scroll right until you get to Mars.

Take a sheet of writing paper, and fold it in half. Keep folding it in half until you can't make another fold. Most likely, you won't get beyond the 7th fold, because at that point, you're trying to fold 128 layers of paper in half. Back in 2005, Britney Gallivan actually worked out how to fold a piece of paper in half 12 times, resulting in 4,096 layers of paper. If you wanted to fold a piece of paper in half enough times to have more than 700 billion layers of paper, you would have to figure out how to fold it in half 40 times. Assuming 1 layer is a standard paper thickness of 1/10th of a mm, the resulting 1,099,511,627,776 layers would reach more than a quarter of the distance from the Earth to the moon!

Instead of distances, though, let's try time. How long ago was 700 billion seconds? 1 million seconds ago was just over 11.5 days ago. 1 billion seconds ago was roughly 31.68 years ago. That means that 700 billion seconds ago was 22,182 years ago (In 2008, 22,182 years ago would be 20,174 B.C.)! Humans were on Earth at that time, but the first civilizations wouldn't appear for another 8-10 millenniums (not years or centuries, millenniums)!

Coming around full circle to money again, have you ever played the lottery? I don't mean those scratch-off cards, but the games where you pick 6 different numbers from 1-50, and then hope those same numbers are picked in a drawing. Try this lottery simulator to get a feel for just how difficult this is. The probability of picking the exact right 6 numbers is 1 in 11,441,304,000 (greater than 1 in 11.4 billion).

Does that seem frustrating? Imagine that the lottery asked you to pick 7 numbers from 1-50 instead! The probability of that would be 1 in 503,417,376,000 (greater than 1 in 500 billion). Even playing Keno in Las Vegas, where you have to pick the correct 6 numbers in a range of 80 (1 in 216,360,144,000) offers a better chance than that!

People who want to take your money via gambling want your chances of winning to be as low as possible so they can bring in money, but still seem high enough to get potential players interested. Think about this: If people like that won't even offer a game whose probability of a player winning is even half of 1 in 700 billion, what does that tell you about the size of 700 billion?

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