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The Impossibility of Truly Understanding a Trillion

The word ‘trillion’ has come to be commonplace. It is a number that is so large that we can’t actually visualize it, but most people don’t even think about it or try to visualize how big that number is. 

It might be noted that the US debt under President Obama grew by about $8.6 trillion dollars; more than 70% more than under any other president, but that has no meaning if a trillion dollars can’t be visualized.

Consider this: A thousand seconds ago was about 17 minutes ago and a million seconds ago was about 12 days ago or less than two weeks. If you are a billion seconds old, you are almost 32 years old because a billion seconds is 31.7 years. One trillion seconds ago, cave bears and saber-toothed tigers still roamed the earth and the most primitive humans hadn’t yet begun become advanced enough to make drawings on cave walls.  A trillion seconds ago was nearly 32,000 years ago!

Put in a slightly different way, if you stacked a one-dollar bill on top of another at the rate of one per second, night and day, without any breaks or rests, it would take you over 31,700 years to stack a trillion dollars. If there was no space between the dollar bills, the stack would be 67,800 miles high; nearly two-fifths of the way to the moon.

And yet, the nearest star to our sun is about four and a quarter light-years away (Proxima Centauri). Light travels nearly 6 trillion miles in a year in space. Try to imagine this distance, four and a half times. 

Now, be honest. Can you really grasp and understand how far across the 100,000 light-years of the Milky Way really is? I pride myself on having a scientific mind, being an engineer by training, but this is way beyond my capability to truly grasp. 

  • Can you really understand how large a trillion is?

    • Yes
    • No


What do you think?

15 Points

Written by Rex Trulove


    • That rather reminds me of an interesting marketing ploy used to try to sell an store. The statement that they used was that it had a volume over 1,000,000,000,000 (1 TRILLION) and then in small print “cu. mm.”. That is actually a small-sized building for a small store since it would be over 35,000 cubic feet, but it was a unique way of expressing it. The interior of the store was a bit larger than 35 feet by 10 feet, with 10-foot ceilings.

      The interior space of my house has a volume of roughly a third of a trillion cubic millimeters. The metal shed I put up a couple of months ago has a volume in excess of 14,700,000,000 cu. mm. Depending on the measurement used, I have over a trillion in storage space on my computer desk.

    • Hmm…that means that if a particle of light began a trip when you started reading this, you’d only need to read this another 20 billion more times before it travels a light-year.

  1. Even a billion is difficult to comprehend for some adults. My explanation is having 1,000 people who are all millionaires. With a trillion make that 1 million people who are all millionaires.

    • Yes and that would be a good way to try to visualize it. Part of the problem is that the numbers fall way outside of the average person’s experience. Most people have never experienced having a thousand of anything. Fewer have had a thousand-thousand of anything. That’s ‘only’ a million. There are billionaires, but not one of them has ever counted the money they have. In fact, they can’t since the total number would constantly be changing.

      Still, if a person has never had a thousand of anything, it is virtually certain that they can’t truly grasp a trillion and probably won’t be able to visualize even a billion.

    • I can’t either and as an engineer by training, I’ve occasionally used very large numbers. Using the big numbers and actually understanding and grasping them are two different things. 🙂