Visualizing the Number One Billion

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Background

For most people, counting is basic knowledge but also a very important one. It is a skill that we use for everyday tasks. We count our money when we buy something, we count the days, weeks, and months, and we even count the time. But did you know that in the jungles of South America, there is the Piraha tribe that is well known as they do not have a way to count more than two? A linguist and professor named Daniel L. Everett spent lots of years living among and studying the tribe. He said that for the group of people, anything more than two is a “big” number.[1]

But if you think of it, most people are also similar to the Piraha tribe. We may be able to count way past two, but there comes the point where we lose our grasp of numbers. When the numbers get big, instinct is gone, and most of us will just say that the number is “really big.” In English, the word “billion” is really big. But how big is it exactly?

One of the tricks to thinking about how large numbers are is to compare or relate them to something that is meaningful. How big is a billion? Unless we’ve thought of some tangible ways to picture this number in relation to a million, all we can say is, “A million is big, and a billion is even bigger.”

If you are also curious about how big a billion is, we are here to help you. In this post, we are giving you some visualization to further understand how big the number one billion is.

What Exactly Is a Billion?

Text "1 BILLION" with letters made out of gold. 3d rendering,

People who were taught numbers before the 1970s may have a different answer when asked what a billion is, depending on where they received their schooling. At the present time, it is accepted that one billion is equivalent to 109. However, keep in mind that in older texts, for instance, in the United Kingdom, a billion has not always meant 109. Until the 1970s, when the UK officially adopted the American meaning of billion, this word represented 1012 in British English.[2]

This difference came from the emergence of two competing systems for naming large numbers. Nicolas Chuquet, a 15th-century mathematician, established a system by combining Latin numerical prefixes such as bi- and tri- with the suffix -illion to form powers of one million. With this, a billion equals one million times one million (or one million squared, 1012), while a trillion is equivalent to one million cubed or 1018. This is referred to as the long scale, which was used in the UK until they began to follow the United States in 1974 by adopting the short scale.

The short scale is a system that originated in France back in the 17th-century and was popular in the French-speaking world until the mid-19th century. It uses the same names such as billion, trillion, quadrillion, etc. However, different values are assigned to them. For instance, one billion is equal to a thousand million, and a trillion is equal to a thousand billion, and so on. The logic is that the prefix attached to -illion pertains to n in formula 103(n+1). For instance, quadrillion, with the prefix quadri- meaning “four,” is equivalent to 103(4+1) or, in a simpler form, 1015.

Today, the short scale is used throughout the English-speaking world. However, the French language has settled on the long scale. With this, an English billion is translated in French as un milliard, and a French billion is translated in English as a trillion.[2]

How Big is a Billion?

It can be challenging for most of us to imagine how many one billion of anything actually is. But there are different ways that may help you better understand the enormity of the numbers involved when we discuss time and the history of our planet. Here are some examples:

How long would it take for a person to become a billionaire?

For instance, you are aiming to save $1,000,000,000, and you can save some money at a rate of $100 per day. When you divide one billion by 100 dollars, it will be equivalent to 10,000,000 days. When you divide that number of days by 365, which is the number of days in a year, it will take you 27,397.26 years in order to save $1 billion.

How long would it take for a person to become a billionaire

That’s a pretty long time, right? In fact, you would never get there in a lifetime. Neither would your kids, grandkids, or great-grandkids. However, if you and one descendant per generation save $100 a day, and each of you lived for 90 years, it would take 304 generations of your descendants to save up to $1 billion.[3]

How long would it take a person to finish counting up to 1 billion?

If a person counts from one to one billion, it can be easy and fast for him to say small numbers like 5 or 25. However, most of the numbers between one and a billion are long and quite challenging to pronounce. When a person starts counting the larger numbers, such as 468,062,482, he is really going to slow down. Imagine how long it takes to say four hundred sixty-eight million, sixty-two thousand, four hundred and eighty-two?

Even if you give a person just 3 seconds to say each number, which is quite faster compared to most people could manage, and he takes no breaks at all, it will take him 3 billion seconds to finish counting. Let’s try to compute it.

How long would it take for a person to finish counting up to one billion

When you divide 3 billion seconds by 60, which is the seconds per minute, you will get 50,000,000 minutes. Divide that by 60, which is the minutes per hour, and you will get 833,333.333 hours. When you divide that by 24 hours per day, the answer is 34,722.22 days. Finally, divide that by 365 days, and you will get 95.1 years. That is how long it will take a person to count from 1 to 1 billion.[3]

How high is a stack of one billion dollar bills?

Another way to better understand large numbers is to compare the heights of stacks of varying numbers of dollar bills. A single one-dollar bill has a thickness of .0043 inches or .0000000679 miles. The height of a stack of 100 one-dollar bills measures .43 inches, while the height of a stack of 1,000 one dollar bills is 4.3 inches.

A stack of 1,000,000 one-dollar bills has a height of 4,300 inches or 358 feet. It is about the height of a 30 to a 35-story building. The height of a stack of 100,000,000 one-dollar bills is 35,851 feet or 6.79 miles. It would reach from the earth’s surface to the approximate altitude at which commercial jetliners fly.

Height of a stack of one billion dollar bills

The height of a stack of one billion one-dollar bills is 358,510 feet or 67.9 miles. That could reach the lower portion of the troposphere from the earth’s surface, which is one of the major outer layers of the earth’s atmosphere. That is how high a stack of a billion-dollar bills.[4]

How long are a billion seconds?

A billion seconds is about 31.7 years. Therefore, when you go back in time, a billion seconds would put us in 1990.[5]

How long are a billion minutes?

A billion minutes is around 1901 years. When you traveled back to a time one billion minutes ago, that would land us in the year A.D. 121. It was more than 70 years too late to encompass the life of Jesus based on traditional accounts. [5]

How long are a billion hours?

A billion hours ago represents time a bit more than 114,000 years in the past. It was an era generally classified as the Lower Paleolithic era or the Old Stone Age. [5]

How long are a billion days?

A billion days is around 2.74 million years. It was the era where the first species of the genus Home appeared in Africa, having diverged from the Australopithecines. [5]

How long was a billion dollars ago?

How Long was a Billion Dollars Ago

For instance, if the United States federal government were spending a billion dollars every 8 hours and 20 minutes, the total yearly expenditure in 2003 would be more than a trillion dollars. In the years before that, the budgets approved by Congress have been about double that amount, or two trillion dollars per year. [5]

What is the length of billion-dollar bills laid end-to-end?

Comparing the lengths of varying numbers of dollar bills laid end-to-end is also another way to understand large numbers. A one-dollar bill has a length of 6.14 inches. Therefore, 100 dollar bills laid end-to-end measure 614 inches or 51.17 feet. 

Length of Billion Dollar Bills Laid End-to-End

The length of 1000 one dollar bills laid end-to-end is 512 feet, which is as long as some of the longest home run balls hit by professional baseball players. In 1961, the world record for the longest home run was around 643 feet by Mickey Mantle. On the other hand, the length of one million one dollar bills laid end-to-end can reach up to 96.9 miles. It can traverse across the English Channel from the shores of England to the shores of France and back over two and a half times.

A hundred million one dollar bills laid end-to-end has a length of 9,960 miles. That is long enough to reach Sydney, Australia, from Washington, D.C. in the United States. Therefore, the length of a billion one dollar bills laid end-to-end is 96,900 miles. That length can extend around the earth almost four times.[4]

How long would it take to spend a billion dollars on a shopping spree if you are spending $20 per second?

If you love to shop, there is also a way for you to better understand large numbers like a billion. It is by imagining the shopping spree of a lifetime, beginning with varying amounts of money. 

How long does it take to expend a billion dollars if you spend  per second

For instance, if a shopper spends $20 per second and needs to do so 24 hours a day until penniless, a shopper that has $100 could shop for a mere five seconds, while a shopper that has $1,000 could shop for 50 seconds. With this, how long do you think a shopper can spend a billion dollars? When you compute it, a shopper can spend a billion dollars in 578 days or a year and 214 days if he or she spends $20 per second.[4]

Interesting Facts About the Number One Billion

the word “billion” spelled using wooden cubes with letters

One billion is indeed a very large number, but comparing it with other things can make it easier for us to understand how big it really is. If you are looking for more information, here are some of the other interesting facts about the number one billion:

  1. One billion on the short scale is 1,000,000,000, while on the long scale, it is referred to as one milliard.
  2. A billion is also referred to as a thousand million.
  3. A billion dollars can also be equal to 266 small U-Haul boxes jammed end-to-end and floor to ceiling in crisp $100 bills.
  4. Did you know that a “ton” of $100 bills is only equivalent to around $90,800,000? Therefore, it may not be true that a billionaire has a “ton” of money if you take it literally.
  5. In the United Kingdom, a billion used to be a million million or 1,000,000,000,000 or 1012. However, the United States decided that a billion should be a thousand million or 1,000,000,000 or 109.
  6. The numbers from 10,000,000,000 or 109 and higher carry different labels, which can foster confusion. Therefore, it is decided and recommended to either write out the number in full or use scientific notation for international use.
  7. A billion is the number of people there were in the world back in the year 1800.
  8. A billion is also the number of bacteria cells that can be found in a single teaspoon of soil.
  9. Did you know that rats ate $1 billion of Pablo Escobar’s money every year, and he did not even notice?
  10. When you turn a billion dollars into a carpet, it measures 4 square miles, which would cover an area equivalent to the size of 2,555 acres.

References

[1] Taylor, C. (2020, April 17). How big are millions, Billions, and trillions? ThoughtCo. Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://www.thoughtco.com/millions-billions-and-trillions-3126163

[2] Language Matters. (2018, February 1). Millions, billions and other large numbers. Antidote: correcteur, dictionnaires, guides. Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://www.antidote.info/en/blog/reports/millions-billions-and-other-large-numbers

[3] UCMP Berkeley. (2020). How Big is a Billion? How big is a billion? Retrieved May 6, 2022, from https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/education/explorations/tours/geotime/guide/billion.html

[4] The Endowment For Human Development, Inc. (2020). Grasping Large Numbers. Grasping large numbers. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from https://www.ehd.org/science_technology_largenumbers.php

[5] Mikkelson, D. (2008, April 22). Billions and billions. Snopes.com. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/billions-and-billions/

[6] Frost, A. (2014, September 21). From one to a billion: 10 awesome but totally random facts about numbers. The Guardian. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/sep/21/top-10-numbers-for-random-facts-adam-frost

[7] Cosgriff, L. (2010, September 25). A billion interesting facts. The Laughing Housewife. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from https://thelaughinghousewife.wordpress.com/2010/09/25/a-billion-interesting-facts/

[8] Commonplace Fun Facts. (2021, November 3). A billion by any other name…. Commonplace Fun Facts. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from https://commonplacefacts.com/2014/11/25/a-billion-by-any-other-name/

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