Playing With Numbers: How to Easily “See” Millions, Billions, and Other Really Huge Numbers

I think it’s safe to say that most of us can pretty much conceptualize a million. That’s a thousand thousand, which is 1,000 x 1,000, or 1,000,000. Whatever that count may represent, I think we all can agree, that’s a really huge number.

When we go past that number, however — 5 million, 50 million, 150 million, a billion and more — it all starts getting a little fuzzy. Oh, we all know these are really huge numbers, but particularly in relation to really tiny numbers that we already have a total automatic feel for (5, 10, 100, etc.), not being able to truly grasp the enormity of really huge numbers is definitely an issue. Many of us just can’t truly relate. All of these numbers, usually from a million on up, we just tend to lump together into that really huge numbers category in our heads.

That’s a serious problem. Not in a practical sense for many of us, but a problem in understanding what the numbers really mean. And we’ve just pinpointed the source of the problem: We have no practical point of reference. Anything larger than the little numbers we already know and can feel intimately, well, they’re just really huge numbers as far as our brains are concerned.

That just won’t do. It’s like really knowing the difference between 1 and 7; we could just easily lump both together under the really tiny numbers category just like we lump the really huge numbers together, but I think we all know there’s a massive difference between a one-year-old child and a seven-year-old. Much like there’s a massive difference between a millionaire and a billionaire. And between a world population of 3 billion and nearly 8 billion.

We better know and have a real, practical feel for all these numbers and what they really mean. Otherwise, they’re just useless, and you and I know, they’re not.

But what can we do? It’s bad enough that a million of anything is difficult to visualize; the chances of us being able to gather up an actual million of anything to see what the darn thing looks like… yeah right. And that’s a million. How about a billion?

Well, I do have an easy way to deal with that, of course. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was a kid, when I first learned all about these really big numbers.

It’s simple too. Which is why it works. As you may suspect, it just has to do with putting the numbers in a perspective we understand and we can relate to without thinking too hard.

And that perspective is time.

Based on the smallest unit of time we already comprehend and use regularly: seconds.

Just turn the really huge numbers into seconds.

Do the math from there (60 seconds = 1 minute; 60 minutes is an hour; 24 hours is a day; etc. etc.) to get a really relatable look at those numbers, and in a way we can truly understand and appreciate… without thinking too hard.

Let’s start with this, the average human life expectancy. A bit of Googling says it’s now 79 years. Let’s round that up to 80 to simplify it. So, we can expect to live 80 years before we kick the bucket.

Under our new time perspective, that’s 80 seconds. A minute and 20 seconds. So,we live about a minute and 20 seconds on our new timeline.

Let’s move up to putting 1,000 in perspective. We’re now into big numbers territory. That’s a millennium, which in historical terms can be mind-blowing to think about: Going back a millennium puts us in 1020, almost right smack in the center of the Middle Ages! In real time, that’s a long ways back.

So, what does 1,000 look like on our new perspective? Let’s do the simple math:

  • 1,000 seconds / 60 = 16.67 minutes

That’s it. In our new perspective, that’s all a millennium is, just 16.67 minutes (let’s round that up to 17, shall we?). So far, this is what we’ve got:

  • 1 min 20 sec – human life expectancy
  • 17 min – a millenium

Small numbers. But we can more easily see how our lives relate to a bigger number. In this case, we can more easily comprehend, more easily feel, that our lives are about 1/17th of a millenium. Cool!

Now let’s move on to really big numbers territory!

Let’s try a million. That’s 1,000,000 seconds. Here’s the math (I’ll just keep rounding numbers up to get rid of those pesky decimals):

  • 1,000,000 sec / 60 = 16,667 min
  • 16,667 min / 60 = 278 hrs
  • 278 hrs / 24 = 12 days

So there we are. In our new perspective, a million is about 12 days. A dozen. Now let’s see how that relates to the other figures we know:

  • 1 min 20 sec – human life expectancy
  • 17 min – a millennium
  • 12 days – a million

I think we can now feel the numbers better! In our new time perspective, our lives are only a bit over a minute, a really tiny speck compared to 12 whopping whole days for a million! Even a millennium at 17 minutes is barely a fraction of a dozen days. See how that works?

Probably still not mind-blowing enough, though. So let’s move on to answer this: What’s the difference between a million and a billion, really? OK then, let’s do the simple math again:

  • 1,000,000,000 sec / 60 = 16,666,667 min
  • 16,666,667 min / 60 = 277,778 hrs
  • 277,778 hrs /24 = 11,574 days

BOOM! A billion in our new perspective is 11,574 days! That’s in the freaking tens of thousands of days, none of that pathetic 12 day silliness for a million.

That’s almost 32 years, in case you’re wondering. Let’s look at all our new time perspective numbers again:

  • 1 min 20 sec – human life expectancy
  • 17 min – a millennium
  • 12 days – a million
  • almost 32 years – a billion

Now can you truly see, feel, and appreciate the difference between a million and a billion? One is a really huge number, while the other is absolutely obscene!

This very simple time perspective technique can, of course, be used to “see” and really understand a whole bunch of really big numbers wherever we encounter them. News. Politics. Economics. And Science! Boy, did I have lots of fun as kid visualizing really huge science numbers this way.

Take the scientific fact that the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago. Let’s see what that looks like in our new time perspective. We don’t even have to do any heavy math, since we now know a million is about 12 days; we just want a ballpark, anyway, to get to “see” the number. So:

  • 12 x 65 = 780 days
  • 780 days = Just short of 2 years and 2 months

So, keeping in mind that our whole lives are just a miniscule 1 min 20 sec long, that’s how “long ago” the dinos went kaput. a couple of years. Big!

But still a far cry from 32 freaking years! The Earth itself is about 4.5 billion years old. On our new perspective, that would make the Earth 144 years old (32 x 4.5). Humanity itself is only around 200,000 years old. That’s just a few hours over 2 days ((17 min x 200 ) / 60 = 57 hours). That’s 57 hours versus 144 years; want to tell me again how important we humans really are in the grand scheme of things? Put up your 1 min 20 sec against that 144 years if you want to feel really, really small.

One final note for those among you a bit too lazy to do this kind of fairly simple math: The built-in calculator apps on our computers, tablets, and smartphones will likely have a “time calculations” mode that’ll make this kind of thing so dirt easy, there’s really no excuse not to try it out.

Have fun “seeing” those really huge numbers in a whole new light!