Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Billion Trillion

In class yesterday, while giving a presentation, a student said, "You've all seen those drug commercials where they list like a billion trillion side effects.'

I hate it when people misuse math words like this. People who throw around the biggest math words they know as a synonym for 'many' are cheapening the value of mathematical notation as they reveal their own ignorance.  When I hear this kind of thing, I am reminded of the stereotype of a cave man, whose idea of counting is 'one, two, three, many'.  People who talk like this signal that their brains do not understand how to deal with numbers larger than the number of digits on their hands.

A billion is 10^9.  A trillion is 10^12.  A billion trillion is 10^21.  If you were to actually list a billion trillion items at the rate of one per second, it would take you 3 x 10^13 years, which is several orders of magnitude larger then the age of the entire universe.

Let me put this into more perspective.  Assume that you were only listing a trillion side effects, at the rate of one per second.  It would take you 30,000 years to finish the commercial.  Imagine that an Egyptian doctor invented a medicine in the First Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, with a trillion side effects.  That doctor starts giving a commercial.  He would be listing side effects as all the pyramids were being built, as the Old Testament was being written throughout the entire history of Israel, as all of the Greek city-states rose and fell, and as the Roman empire covered the Mediterranean and then collapsed in upon itself.  He would be listing side effects all during the Dark Ages of Europe, during the centuries of Viking raids, and during the centuries of the Middle Ages.  He would be listing side effects as Columbus sailed the sea, and all throughout the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, continuing through the lives of your grandparents, your parents, and for your entire life until today.

And as of today, he would have finished listing less than one-fifth of the side effects of the medicine.

Hopefully this will reveal the stupidity of throwing around words like 'trillion'.  So don't be like the person in my class.  Use math words properly, and respect their meaning.

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