Scientific Notation: A trillion.

When I was in third grade, The Weekly Reader reported that the national debt per person was about the same as the cost of a new car.  I remember thinking, ‘I can’t pay for a new car! I can’t even drive a car.’ My future was doomed even as I knew that car would be red. Since third grade, the national debt has gone up and come down but the trend of late is definitely up. Cleanly and clearly driving in the red.

The current GOP tax bill is projected to add about $1.5 trillion (USD) to the national debt. Not to be outdone, Prescedense OTUS proposed a $4.4 trillion (USD) budget which, net of income, would throw many more trillion on the national debt. (And the words ‘Trump budget’ sound like an oxymoron.)


A trillion is a 1 followed by 12 zeroes (000000000000).  Reading the word ‘trillion‘ doesn’t have the same impact as seeing the number 1,000,000,000,000.  Represented in scientific notation, a trillion looks like 1×10¹² and ten raised to the twelve (10¹²) looks big … because it is BIG!

I propose that numbers like the US national debt and the budget be spelled out using scientific notation. Scientific notation emphasizes that the number is not of human scale. It is not in your lifetime.  I did the math. It would take 396.372399797 lifetimes lasting 80 years each to count to one trillion. No time for food or any other comfort. Each second counts. For 80 years.  And 400 lifetimes. Whoa!


Although writing $1,500,000,000,000 adds more ink and more space by including all the numbers, writing $1.5 x 10¹² adds gravitas and looks all sciencey and interesting. It looks other-worldly. As a number, it is as hard to wrap my head around the space of a trillion as it was to imagine paying for and driving a red car in third grade.

The space of a trillion.  The space of all those zeroes. The zeroes of space, the last frontier. By means of illustration, this picture was taken from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Due to sentence construction, the article seems to imply that the Hubble Space Telescope is a trillion miles from earth. It is not. But the photograph itself is of a spiral galaxy about a trillion miles from the earth. And to our point, the article contains this very valid observation:

Looking at this stunning image forces one to ask: what mysteries and life forms exist there?

And so I would suggest that space and applying scientific notation to the national debt gives us pause to wonder where we are headed with all this debt and what mysteries miseries will exist for our children and their children and what form will life take in the future? Let’s face it, the current administration and circus in Washington don’t give much credence to science, scientists, the scientific method, or much consideration to future generations, or shoot, us even.

So, for all we owe ourselves, I think we owe it to ourselves to apply scientific notation to the national debt.  Here we go:

$20.632X10¹² (US Debt Clock.org: snapshot taken 2018.02.16, 12:30 PM)

Hmmm.  I’m incredulous. Stunned. Representing the national debt in scientific notation underscores that most of us don’t understand macroeconomics and economic theory.

It’s like, science, dude.


In closing, as we consider gun control shoot our ‘thoughts and prayers‘ for the victims of AR-15 weapons of mass destruction into the void, let’s add a ‘thoughts and prayers’ chaser for the national debt. Afterall, the nearest black hole is only about 27,000 light-years away or 158,722×10¹² miles. Or 69,913,020 lifetimes of 80 years.

Ugh.

One thought on “Scientific Notation: A trillion.

  1. Pingback: At wealth’s end … | Viva Escritora

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