If you’re of a certain age, you have heard that sixty is the new forty. This makes sense if you have children and can see that twenty is the new infant. I certainly appear younger than my father did when he was my age, but then I appear younger than most of my schoolmates. In the grocery store yesterday, the young man who was obliged to check my I.D. had to tell me twice that I didn’t look like I’m in my fifties, because I still have the hearing of an older person. I blame it on being a drummer for so many years. The other thing that gives me away is that every story has a long introduction.
Numbers are what they are. I don’t believe that people don’t understand the difference between a billion and a trillion, but they sound similar. What is required is an understanding of scale. As you recall from grade school, some people never understood fractions, and decimals tend to disguise scale. That’s why so few people noticed as our federal budget went from being measured in billions to trillions, a difference of three orders of magnitude.
Politicians mention what appear to be big numbers, because we compare those numbers to our personal wealth rather than the budget to which they are applied. Confusing (AKA misleading or lying to) the public even more is the tendency of politicians to talk about money over a period of time, sometimes decades, while we think about that money as affecting us today, at a fixed point in time.
Case in point is the recent “fiscal cliff” and the effects of “sequestration”. The amount of money “saved” by sequestration is a total of eighty five billion dollars in 2013. That sounds like a lot of money. It’s just over twice the net worth of Larry Ellison, the third wealthiest person in America. Way more money than I have. Compared to the three and a half trillion dollar budget, it is a little over two percent. Compare that to your budget, don’t even consider that the federal government budgets more spending than income (thus operating at a deficit, and building a debt). If you earned one hundred thousand dollars this year, how much would losing two thousand dollars affect you? It is one dinner for two at Deux Cheminees (including really nice wines), or lunch for two every work day at McDonald’s (if you eat there). Do the cuts to services being blamed on the sequester fit that scale?
A simple way of visualizing these numbers is this video about the promised (not actual) cuts to the 2009 budget. It’s short, take the minute and a half to watch it.
Today’s subject is not the budget, it is the numbers themselves. The number that led me to write this is the speed of light. 186,282 Miles per second is the way I first was introduced to the “c” in E=mc². That’s 670,616,629 Mph, or just over a billion kilometers per hour. It is so fast that light needs only eight and a half minutes to make the journey from the Sun to your eyes. Based on Pluto’s mean distance, that journey takes almost six hours. Understanding the scale of the difference between eight minutes and six hours provides some insight into understanding how distant Pluto is from Earth. In contrast, light traveling to our nearest galaxy (M31, Andromeda) requires two and a half million years. Looking backwards two and a half millions years, apes were just starting to stand upright. So if today folks in Andromeda are looking this way, the standing ape would be the most evolved land mammal they would see. The most intelligent life would be in the sea.
When we consider nuclear energy, that “c” comes up again. Here it is c². The energy from converting one gram of mass (at 100% efficiency) is equivalent to the burning of 568,000 gallons of gasoline. That’s less than we use in America in two days. However, if we’re discussing Plutonium, one gram costs about $4000, and is about 0.0030795 cubic inches in size. You can see one of the attractions of nuclear power. Factoring in safety and waste disposal, nuclear power is still the most cost effective form of power, but it has a scary reputation, which is as real as Godzilla.
Now some smaller numbers again. I’m no fan of Monsanto or GMOs, but I was taken aback by a story about a petition to ban Monsanto. There are presently two million signatures for a world wide ban. How such a ban could be implemented, and by whom, remains a mystery. But my point is the insignificance of two million signatures. If we’re considering a world wide ban, two million is 1/3500 of the seven billion inhabitants of the world. Monsanto employs , directly and indirectly, over forty million people, or twenty times as many as signed the petition. If you want to ban GMOs, start in your own kitchen. When I decided to avoid products from China it was a daunting task, but I cared enough to make the effort. Here are not just one but two articles on Non-GMO sources, one has a printable list (some of the stuff continues beyond GMOs, I’ve been trying to get Banoosh to hire better writers, maybe even me).
When you hear big numbers, consider their context. Even if you don’t think you understand math, you can certainly count, and understand that “zero” is more important than “nothing”.