How large is a trillion?

Published 6:55 pm Wednesday, March 3, 2010

To the Editor:

With Congress increasing the U.S. national debt ceiling by $1.9 trillion and trying to ram through a budget with a deficit of $1.2 trillion just for the current year, it may be useful to get a handle on exactly how much is a trillion.

The number is divorced from everyday experience because it is so astonishingly large. We can handle a million, but a trillion is a million million, and that is just too large a number to easily comprehend.

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Suppose we could line up, say, a trillion quarters side by side. How long a distance would that cover?

A quarter is one-half inch in diameter. There are 63,360 inches in one mile so a mile of quarters would number 63,360 times two for a total of 12,720 quarters. One trillion divided by 12,720 is 15,720,000, which means that one trillion quarters lined up side by side would extend for a distance of 15,720,000 miles. That would be equivalent to circling the earth at the equator 628 times, or making 67 round trips to the moon.

What if you were allowed one trillion heart beats in your lifetime? Assuming your heart beats one time per second (pulse rate of 60), then just divide one trillion by 60 and you would have your hearts lifespan in minutes. You can do the math, and if you divide that result by the number of minutes in a year you would get 1.902 million years.

In other words, if you were allowed a lifetime limit of one trillion heartbeats, you would live almost two million years barring some unfortunate event.

How about an atom? A single hydrogen atom has a diameter of one two hundred-millionths of an inch.

This means two hundred million hydrogen atoms lined up side by side would measure one inch overall. Multiply two hundred millionths of an inch by one trillion and you will find that the previously invisible atom would be the size of a gymnasium.

If you make a million dollars per year you would be a trillionaire in one million years. A trail of thistle seeds numbering one trillion could crisscross America 160 times.

A trillion miles would allow 125 trips to Pluto and back. One trillion stars are more than double the stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. A trillion years is 65 times the estimated age of the universe.

Any way you look at it one trillion is a huge number.

The way I see it, the best way out of this problem with the national debt and our failing economy is to divide the salary of all those in Congress by one trillion. That should end this financial fiasco once and for all as they would then each be forced to get a real job and leave the rest of us in peace.

Jim Cooper