What is a Trillion Anyway?

2660 money bag feature
2660 money bag feature

Courtesy of Lindsey Dawson.

Do you sometimes get the feeling that your brain just can’t cope any more? I had one of those moments when the US Treasury announced it was bailing out America’s two biggest mortgage companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

They sound like cuddly stuffed toys. Freddie Mac sounds like he should be a grinning frog made of lime green fluffy fabric (and maybe sporting a tartan bow tie). Fannie May conjures up the image of smiling American momma-doll in a cute gingham apron, holding a fragrant apple pie in pudgy hands. I guess that’s why they were given those names. How could you not trust companies called Freddie and Fannie?  No hint in those cute monikers of the vast mountains of money they were handling (apparently badly). Not a whiff of coinage, no scent of folding bills.

And yet they own or guarantee about half of all America’s mortgages, which represents about SUS5 trillion. Sorry? Say it quickly and it doesn’t sound like much. Five trillion? What the hell is a trillion anyway?.

Here it is: a million million dollars. It’s five followed by twelve zeros – $5,000,000,000,000 . The more you look at it the more nonsensical it seems. The mind simply cannot comprehend it. That’s five thousand, thousand, thousand, thousand.

I’m not the only one to wonder about the size and heft of a trillion. Google the word and you come up with all sorts of info. Such as:

  • If you had gone into business on the day Jesus was born, and your business lost a million dollars a day, day in and day out, 365 days a year, it would take you until October 2737 to lose a trillion dollars.    
  • Expressed in time, one trillion seconds represents 31,546 years.
  • If you laid one dollar bills end to end, you could make a chain that stretches from earth to the moon and back again 200 times before you ran out of dollar bills. One trillion dollars would stretch nearly from the earth to the sun. It would take a military jet flying at the speed of sound, reeling out a roll of dollar bills behind it, 14 years before it reeled out one trillion dollar bills.
  • If you have a bucket that holds 100 thousand marbles, you would need 10 million of those same buckets to hold a trillion marbles.

Had enough? Yes, me too. It’s just too big to grasp. No-one seems to be able to comprehend, either, what the FanFred mess even means.  I’ve seen a range of ‘expert’ commentators interviewed on TV and none of them seemed to be absolutely sure if the US government has saved America (and the rest of us) from disaster or just slapped a few Band-aids over a seeping wound.  

Meanwhile, the news is full of yet more numbers. In Switzerland, physicists are beginning to play inside a massive underground loop tunnel that measures 27 kilometres around, and is about 100m metres deep.  It’s called the Hadron Collider. It’s costing around six billion euros. (What’s a billion? Oh, a mere nine zeros this time.) What the scientists want is to gain a better understanding of matter and try to fathom what happened at the Big Bang. They’ll fling sub-atomic particles around the tunnel, in opposite directions, using mighty bending and focussing magnets to keep the particle streams on track. And when those little babies smack into each other, it is assumed a whole new understanding of physics will result.

It’s all good and worthy. I guess. I just wish I understood it. And how did we get to this? As small children we thought we were doing pretty well when we could count on our fingers.  Now we’re talking trillions. And petabytes. A petabyte (just in case you feel you have to know) is 15 million gigabytes of data, which is what will come out of Hadron Collider experiments every year.  

I think I’ll go for a calming walk now. On the beach. Where I’ll sternly resist wondering how many grains of sand lie there beneath my feet.

By Lindsey Dawson