They say that, with the proliferation of cars, jet aircraft and the Internet,
the world is getting smaller. Yet, conversely, the numbers we have to deal
with every day are getting larger. We hear of
chances, lbillion business deals and the universe containing l00billion
galaxies and billions upons billions of stars. Behind us lay billions of
years of history, against which a human life is a mere blink of an eye. But
what is a billion? It is now widely accepted as 1 ,000 million, though the
British billion was traditionally a million million. To get some idea of
how big a billion is, it would take your entire lifetime to count to it if
you started as soon as you were born. In the face of such mind-boggling figures
the human brain practically melts down -
numbers make us dizzy. The fact is that most people just don't understand
what a billion is - or a million for that matter - and don't really care.
We yawn at the billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.
We rationalise playing a
lottery with a chanceof
winning of less than one in 14million by concluding that 'someone's got
to win it'.Yet if we are told we have same odds of contracting a killer
disease, we brush it aside with the thought 'it'll never happen to me'.
But why do we have such a problem with numbers that increasingly inhabit
our daily consciousness? It may be because our brains never evolved to deal
them. After all, not so long ago, our world was governed by the tens of people
in our tribe or the hundreds of kilometres we might travel in our lifetime
- we are not equipped to handle numbers in the thousands, let alone millions
or billions. Our children stand a better chance of becoming 'billion friendly'
as they are growing up in a generation where the power of the computers they
use for school and games is measured in gigahertz and gigabytes (giga meaning
a billion). So next time you read that a billion tonnes of a pollutant has
found its way into the air we breathe, just remember how big a billion is.
To put it into perspective, a billion seconds lasts 31.7 years and a billion
minutes is 1,901 years. There are a billion atoms making up the dot over
this i. China has a population of a billion and London has 7.5million residents,
so it would take at least 133 Londons to equal the amount of citizens in