Tuesday, February 03, 2009

How to Tell a Trillion From a Billion

That thought exercise suggested by John Allen Paulos keeps running through my head. How long does it take a million seconds to pass by? Less than 12 days. A billion seconds? Almost 32 years.

Even larger quantities of seconds really boggle the mind. Take 50 billion, the notional total of the dollars lost in Madoff's self-confessed Ponzi scheme.

How long is 50 billion seconds? About 1,585.5 years. Backtrack though that much human history and you're in 423, the year Roman Emporer Honorius died. Honorius was the first to reign over only the Western Roman Empire, and that was disintergrating fast. The Visigoths sacked Rome in 410.

Honorius depicted on a silver coin

Now consider one trillion seconds. (The stimulus package is around $900 billion and counting, so consider we must.) If one billion seconds amount to 31.7 years, one trillion amount to 31.7 millennia. Go back 31,700 years and you find yourself in the Stone Age. You're probably a few centuries too late to meet an actual Neanderthal. So head for what is now the south of France and ask an early Homo Sapiens about local art exhibits. With luck, he'll direct you to the Chauvet Cave, containing remarkable drawings of horses and other animals. This scene shows lions hunting bison.

Chauvet Cave: Lions Hunting

Wonder what would have happened if the Neanderthals had remained in the World Survival League. They appeared to have sizable brains. Would they have steered clear of synthetic CDOs?

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