Friday, July 15, 2005

What is a Billion?

The next time you hear a politician use the word "billion," casually, think about whether you want the politician spending your tax money.

A billion is a difficult number to comprehend, but one advertising agency did a good job of putting that figure into perspective in one of its releases.

       a.. A billion seconds ago it was 1959.
       b.. A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.
       c.. A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the StoneAge.
       d.. A billion days ago no-one walked on two feet on earth.
       e.. A billion dollars ago was only 8 hours and 20 minutes, at the rate our government spends it.

Posted at 07:46 AM in Science | Permalink


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I disagree with a billion seconds ago. If there are approx 31,556,926 seconds in a year, then I calculate a billion seconds ago to be in 1974. I have tried it several times and can not reach 1959. Can you check again and tell me what I may be doing wrong?

Posted by: Thomas Moschner | Sep 27, 2006 7:24:34 AM

Thomas, my calculation comes out the same as yours. I'm working on my weekly "Attorney at Large" column this morning and I, too, have done this calculation several times.
(See below)
Jim Castagnera
Billions of Reasons to Hate the War
Jim Castagnera
Attorney at Large
Did it bother you as much as it bugged me… see the videotape of all those pallets of hard cash being loaded onboard planes bound for Iraq? According to one report I read, 363 tons of crisp, new $100 bills --- $12 billion in cold cash --- were airlifted to Baghdad in the days immediately after the May 2003 invasion. The video footage surfaced on TV as Paul Bremer, the guy who ran Iraq from May 2003 to June 2004, testified before Congressman Henry Waxman’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. If Waxman thought Bremer could account for all that boodle, he was destined for disappointment. Frank Willis, described as senior official of the Coalition Provisional Authority, acknowledged that “Iraq was awash in cash.” An attorney for an outfit called Iraq Whistleblowers claims, “The environment created by the coalition positively encouraged corruption.” Big surprise, eh?
This news started me thinking about all those missing billions. How much is a billion, anyway? For Bill Gates, I guess, it’s just walking-around money. For us middle-class working stiffs, a billion may be a bit harder to grasp. With a $2.9 trillion budget being debated by Congress as I write this, our senators and representatives by do well to recall the words of the late senior senator from Illinois, Everett Dirksen: “A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” SO how much is a “billion” anyway?
To get my hands around that number I tried thinking about time instead of dollars. Since my emails to Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist who wrote “A Brief History of Time,” went unanswered, I had to work this through for myself. So bear with me. Here goes:
• If we multiply 24 hours/day by 60 minutes/hour and again by 60 seconds/ minute, we come up with 86,400 seconds in a single day.
• Now, multiply 86,400 by 365 days/year and you should come up with 31,536,000 seconds in a single year. With me so far?
• Now, let’s divide one billion by 31,536,000. I don’t know about you, but I come up with 31.7.
• Last, subtract 31.7 from 2007 and you are left with 1975.
In other words, if I did this right, a billion seconds subtracted from our lives would take us all the way back to 1975. Put a little differently, a billion seconds is more than half my life. For most of the students I teach, a billion seconds is 50 percent more than their entire lives to date.
Now, let’s get back to dollars. Assume the Congress gives the Administration the entire $2.9 trillion requested for the government’s next fiscal year, beginning October 1, 2007. Here we go again:
• Takes 24 hours/day and multiply by 365 days and you should come up with 8,760 hours for the year.
• $2.9 trillion equals $2,900 billion, right?
• Okay, then, divide 8,760 hours by 2900 and you will get approximately three.
If I’ve got this one right, too, then Uncle Sam will be spending a billion bucks every three hours on average, if he gets every clam he’s requested.

Posted by: Dr. James Ottavio Castagnera | Feb 10, 2007 9:15:08 AM

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