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What’s a Trillion?

Here’s a quiz question: What’s a trillion?

I’m asking because of the graph below, which I stumbled into last week, which shows that the US National Debt now stands at about $26.8 trillion, and has risen $3.3 trillion since March.

But should we be worried? I mean, what’s a trillion anyway?

The Magnitude of a Trillion

It won’t give you much perspective if I simply point out that a trillion is a million million or a thousand billion. So, let’s consider a trillion in the context of US dollars: if you were to spend a million dollars every day, how long would it take you to spend a trillion? 2,739 years. That’s right. If you went back to the time when Romulus ruled and founded Rome (around 719 BCE), and you started spending then, you’d spend your last million dollars sometime this year.

So how long ago was that in seconds?

A trillion seconds takes you farther back than that—31,710 years to be precise, smack in the middle of the last ice age when much of North America and Europe was covered in ice. If you were walking around Los Angeles (it probably had a different name in those days), you might have run into the occasional human being. You might also have run into sabre-toothed cats, mammoths, giant sloths, and dire wolves. All of these have since died out, one or two of them by falling into the La Brea Tar Pits.

What about a trillion atoms stacked on top of each other? Do you think that’s roughly how tall you are?

No, not exactly.

As big as the Washington Monument?

No. A trillion atoms (in a solid) would rise to a height of 5000 meters, higher for example, than Mont Blanc is above sea level.

What about a trillion inches? How far does that take you?

It’s about 15.8 million miles—about halfway to Mars on its nearest approach, or 635 times around the circumference of the Earth. I wouldn’t try walking it; it’ll take you more than a thousand years.

A trillion is a big big number. So what about the $3.3 trillion of National Debt that the US has acquired since March of this year? How much is it really?

It’s roughly $28,000 per household.


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