watch counting time

Million vs Billion

Ray Kurzweil and plenty of other articles state that human beings have a tremendous difficulty understanding the concept of acceleration and compound gains.

Although we might think of us as rational beings and capable of processing a not-so-complex math calculation, not all layers of our brain can process this kind of information.

We just didn’t evolve to do this.
Just like we aren’t built to deal with big numbers.


Although we might think of numbers and being able to count as a “human universal” thing, it isn’t absolute.

Not all societies developed this abstraction and ways (or words) to represent precise quantities.

Some managed to survive and live by only counting to 2 or so.

Seeing a small child learning to count is interesting. When it gets to numbers bigger than 10 the child’s brain stops processing and that’s when they start installing the maths_1/32.exe

I’m glad we’re born with 10 fingers, so that we have a significant number of items at hand to guide us in this learning process.

The birth of numbers

So, how did we ever invent “unnatural” numbers in the first place?

The answer is, literally, at your fingertips. The bulk of the world’s languages use base-10, base-20 or base-5 number systems. That is, these smaller numbers are the basis of larger numbers. English is a base-10 or decimal language, as evidenced by words like 14 (“four” + “10”) and 31 (“three” x “10” + “one”).

Big numbers

We humans struggle with big numbers. They’re just abstract concepts and we can’t fully grasp.

Take, for example, the numbers a million and a billion. That’s how I’d describe them:

A million is a LOT (capitalized) of things.
A billion is a SHIT LOT of things.

I’ve recently watched a video with a visual representation of these quantities using rice grains.

This was interesting but still… it didn’t touch me.

-they’re piles of rice shown in a video (somewhat detached from my reality, I’ve never counted rice grains)
-the piles’ volumes grow geometrically and do not perfectly represent the increase in quantity

What led me to write this article is a quote from Graham Duncan that made me rethink both life and my understanding of quantities.

Visualizing Million vs Billion

I’m taking for granted that you know what a second is, how much time it encompasses.

Try to guess how long it takes you to spend a million seconds.
12 days.

Now try to guess how much time a billion seconds is.
32 years.

Much better than a LOT and a SHIT LOT…

My initial conclusions after thinking about this

  • Millionaires and billionaires inhabit different wealth galaxies. (Although both can seem or actually be living the same lifestyle.)
  • It empirically/sensorially proved to me that it is “impossible” to go from 0 to million and then to billion just based on linear growth.
  • Just like I knew what 10 meant by looking at my fingers, now I know what a billion is by looking at my age.
  • The movie In Time had terrible ratings but I loved it when I watched it 10 years ago. Time to revisit it.

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  1. It’s 11 days not minutes

    1. Indeed! Thx for notifying me!
      Just a rounding error 😛

  2. Very interesting perspective on time and the human ability to calculate the effect of acceleration. I wonder if this is how Albert Einstein began his deep dive into the relationship of energy and mass?
    ezdoesit on beeminder

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