Bear with me and try a little experiment: Imagine 10 M&M’s laying on a table. Got it? Now imagine 100 M&M’s on the same table.
Now, if someone asked, could you explain the difference in relative size between the 10 and the 100? My guess is that you could.
Now imagine 1 billion M&M’s. Got it? Okay, now imagine 100 billion M&M’s. Now explain the difference in relative size.
Trickier, isn’t it?
I used this illustration in my class today to make a point that C.S. Lewis made in his book The Discarded Image. He’s discussing the size of the cosmos in the medieval perspective as opposed to our modern perspective.
For thought and imagination, ten million miles and a thousand million miles are much the same. Both can be conceived (that is, we can do sums with both) and neither can be imagined; and the more imagination we have the better we shall know this. The really important difference is that the medieval universe, while unimaginably large, was also unambiguously finite.
See the point? While it’s possible to explain the difference between 1 billion M&M’s and 100 billion (we can do the math), we can’t imagine it. The number is just too large. Talking about and imagining the difference between traveling 30 miles or 300 miles is meaningful. One is the distance from my house to Wisconsin. The other is the distance to Canada. And if I use Google Maps, I know about how long it will take me to get to either one.
But as soon as we get up into the really big numbers, the kind that end with “-illions,” we cease to have any sense of proportion. This has certain results on our thinking about “big” and “small.” Lewis continues:
[O]ne unexpected result of this [the difference between the modern conception of the universe as being unimaginably and inconceivably large and the medieval conception of a spectacularly large but finite space] is to make the smallness of the Earth more vividly felt. In our universe she is small, no doubt; but so are the galaxies, so is everything–and so what? But in theirs there was an absolute standard of comparison.
The result of this is that for us moderns to talk about the distance from here to the moon as compared to the distance to the sun is about as meaningful as two kids betting which one is going to flinch first in bloody knuckles (“I bet you a bazillion dollars.” “Oh yeah. I bet you a gazillion trillion dollars.” “Oh yeah, I bet you a billion trillion banana-fanana bobillion, fee-fi-mo-million dollars…”)
[PAUSE for random joke]
Since I will, Lord willing, be spotlighting the insanity of our current president over the next four years, I might as well use this one while it is still fresh in everyone’s mind:
One of President Bush’s advisors was updating him on casualty reports from the war. The advisor said, “Mr. President, I have some bad news. There was a firefight in Baghdad today and 3 Brazilian soldiers died.”
President Bush’s face went white. He stumbled to his desk and leaned on it for support. Finally, with trembling voice, he asked, “How many is a brazillion?”
[RESUMING NORMAL POST]
The point is that the problem of unfathomably large numbers is a distinctly modern one, and that it is, in fact, a problem. And, in case we needed another reminder, our duly elected officials just passed an 819 billion dollar “stimulus” package. For those keeping track, that’s $819,000,000,000. When interest over the next four years is factored in, it’s more like 1.1 trillion ($1,100,000,000,000).
This isn’t money that they actually have. They will either borrow it from someone stupid enough to trust them, or they will fire up the trusty printing presses and create it from nothing. What could go wrong?
A year ago, Congress was debating whether to expand a certain healthcare program by $30 billion. There was enough opposition that the proposed spending didn’t make it through. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the new spending. And this is on top of the already huge government debt.
I seriously wonder if, when they’re putting these bills together, they have a competition to see who can name the biggest number. I guess if they ever pass a bill to spend “infinity dollars,” we’ll know.