What is the biggest number humans can wrap their head around?
Human beings evolved only needing to comprehend small numbers. The average tribe might have contained around 100-200 people. Intuitively, you should be able to comprehend that amount, and possibly even be able to visualize the difference between 100 people and 200 people.
We as humans needed to be able to know everyone in our tribe. Accordingly, Dunbar’s number suggests that we are only capable of having stable relationships with only 150 people.
But can we push our brains beyond that number? Well, it helps if you can anchor the number to something physical.
Imagine the largest arena you have ever been in. For me, that is 100,000 people. Seeing 100,000 in one space, and knowing that it is exactly 100,000 people, helps comprehend that size of number.
I may have seen 200,000 grains of sand, but I don’t have that counted and in front of me. Even if someone did count the grains of sand and told me it was 200,000, the sand grains are indistinguishable from each other. This makes it difficult to anchor that number to the amount of sand.
Being able to visualize and associate 100,000 ‘things’ helps us comprehend that number.
Can we understand the difference between a million and a billion?
To get to numbers larger than 100,000 seater stadiums we need to think more abstract, whilst still tying the number to something tangible.
A million is a thousand thousand. A billion is a thousand million. But what does this mean? The only difference our brains can see is simply a ‘b’ instead of an ‘m’. One letter difference seems insignificant.
But we can try anchoring the numbers to something tangible that we are familiar with. Let’s take our Gregorian calendar. How many days is one million seconds on a calendar?
The answer is about 12 days.
That alone doesn’t really help us comprehend a million, but it can help us comprehend the difference between a million and a billion.
Now that you know a million seconds is about 12 days, can you guess how many days is a billion seconds on a calendar?
200 days? 12 months? The answer is 31 years! An astronomical difference.
Let’s change 1 more letter and look at a trillion seconds on a calendar. That is over 31,000 years!
Understanding our place in the universe using a Cosmic Calendar
The TV series ‘Cosmos’ highlights another great way to understand the vastness of time, and our place in the universe. The ‘Cosmic Calendar’ scales down all 13.8 billion years of the universe, from the time of the big bang until today, into 1 year on a calendar.
In this analogy, the big bang happens on January 1st at midnight. The birth of the universe. And right now, is midnight on 31st December, 1 year later.
When do you think human beings came into existence on this calendar of time? In May? In November?
The answer is that human beings came into existence in the universe only 14 minutes ago, at 11:46 pm on December 31st. The blink of an eye.
Using distance & money to understand large numbers
There are other methods of understanding the difference between a million and a billion. Tom Scott shows the difference using a one-dimension medium: distance.
Walking the equivalent distance of 1,000,000 one dollar bills stacked along the floor takes about a minute. To get to a billion dollar bills in distance, Tom needs drive for more than an hour:
You can also take money or salary as a concept and use it to understand vast wealth. We already discussed above that we can almost comprehend 100,000 as a number if we anchor it to a large arena full of people. Now you can take that 100,000 number and turn it into millions and billions in Notepad to visualize this amount of wealth:
How does understanding large numbers help us?
As discussed above, it can help us understand more about the universe. The vastness of it and our place in it. It’s exciting in that there is so much we don’t know and so much space to explore.
If you can begin to comprehend the notion of trillions & trillions of planets in our universe, many with the potential for life, then you can understand that the possibility we are alone in the universe is incredibly small. With so much time and space out there, you start to feel almost certain there is other life out there.
Closer to home, it can help us understand the absurdity of billionaires being a thing, whilst many in the world live in poverty. Large swaths of wealth can disappear, life changing amounts of money, and it can be barely noticeable for a billionaire. If more people truly understood large numbers, there would be far more outrage directed towards the ultra-rich.
And there are now trillionaires in some parts of the world. That is wealth almost impossible for us to comprehend. It’s all enough to make your head explode!