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The Sciences

Giggety giggety gigapennies

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitJanuary 13, 2009 1:30 AM

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So how well do you grok big numbers? I'm an astronomer, so I do OK. More importantly, I am a huge geek (bordering on dork) when it comes to numbers, and when I was a kid I would sit and memorize the names of the big exponents: decillion, nonillion, octillion (my favorite; I like the way it sounds). But what do they really mean? How big are these numbers? Most of us have a hard time grasping anything past about 16, so a million is hard. The bailout is in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and the national debt in the trillions. How much cash is that?

onemillioncents.jpg

Turns out, it's a lot. But it's hard to grasp, so you might want to take a look at a site called Megapenny. It's pretty cool, using simple but effective graphics, stepping you through stacks of pennies to represent big numbers. I was doing OK up to about a billion pennies, but then at 10 billion I started to freak out a little bit. A billion is a big number. And now maybe you'll have an idea of just how big. You see that picture? That's only a million pennies (plus change... literally). That's only ten grand's worth. Think you know how many a billion is? Guess first, then click through. You may be surprised.

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