Why do scientists documentaries use terms such as “one thousand billion” instead of just saying one trillion?

570 views

Edit: Title should read “scientists *in* documentaries”

In: Other

Possibly because they prefer using the long system for numbering, where one billion is a million million, and a trillion is a billion billion.

People in general have a hard time understanding scale for extremely large and extremely small things. It’s easy to understand how far away say, the next city over is. If I needed to quantify it in terms of say, how long it would take to walk there, I could probably make an okay-ish estimate. Trying to comprehend just how far away from us Proxima Centauri is much harder, and if I attempted to perform the same exercise I’d probably be way, way, way off.

People have an easier time comprehending what a billion is. Explaining a trillion as a thousand billion is easier for people (especially average people) to comprehend the scale of.

In British English until fairly recently, a billion was considered to be one million million, rather than the thousand million that Brits and Americans use now. And by the same token, a trillion was a million times that – a one followed by 18 zeroes. They were called “long scale” and “short scale.” The terms were standardized in the 1970’s I believe and the traditional American usage of one thousand millions = a billion and one thousand billions = one trillion is agreed upon now.

Still, because of that there can be confusion between what each number might mean, especially to older viewers/readers who might remember the old system. So to minimize confusion, many scientists prefer to use terms like “thousand million” or “thousand billion” to identify those numbers.

It also has a little bit of a rhetorical advantage: it’s really hard to imagine large numbers. I can imagine a million dollars in terms of things you could buy – a nice house in many areas, several very nice cars, etc. I can sort of imagine a billion (thousand million) dollars in terms of goods as well – maybe a few huge mansions, each with a big garage full of luxury cars might total a billion dollars’ value. It’s much harder for me to really imagine a number bigger than that, like a trillion dollars, because it’s so far removed from the scales at which I live or imagine. Saying “one thousand billion” might make it easier, because now I can take my billion-dollar example and imagine a thousand of those – still mind-boggling, but easier to relate to things that I understand.

The same applies to scientific extremes like distance or time. I can imagine a mile, because I’ve walked and run plenty of them. I could probably estimate one pretty well. I can imagine a hundred or even a thousand miles, because I’ve driven and flown those distances – a thousand miles is somewhere around the distance of Los Angeles to Seattle (more like 1,100 but whatever!), which is a trip I’ve taken. It’s hard to imagine a million miles. But I can kind of imagine a thousand flights from Los Angeles to Seattle. Multiply that thousand-trip 93 times more and that’s the distance from the Earth to the sun – a distance that’s much harder to actualize when you hear “93 million miles.”

here’s an example of the difference from Robert Heinlein’s *The Number Of The Beast*

From “The Number of the Beast” by Heinlein. The number of the beast was not 666, but 6^6^6, which gives:

> 10,314,424,798,490,535,546,171,949,056.

> “Mmm, `Ten thousand three hundred and fourteen quadrillion, four hundred twenty-four thousand seven hundred and ninety-eight trillion, four hundred and ninety thousand five hundred and thirty-five billion, five hundred and forty-six milliard, one hundred and seventy-one million, nine hundred and forty-nine thousand, and fifty-six. But I would never say it other than as a stunt.

> “I blinked at her. “I recognize that nomenclature — just barely. Here is the way I would read it: `Ten octillion, three hundred fourteen septillion, four hundred twenty-four sextillion, seven hundred ninety-eight quintillion, four hundred ninety quadrillion, five hundred thirty-five trillion, five hundred forty-six billion, one hundred seventy-one million, nine hundred forty-nine thousand, and fifty six.”

While all the responses are interesting I would like to note a subjective observation. “one thousand billion” sounds more impressive than “one trillion” even though they’re the same.

Cuz really big numbers are hard to understand. Put it this way, a million seconds is 11 hours. A billion seconds is 30 years.

A thousand billion is an attempt to help you understand how big a trillion is.

The terms billion, trillion, quadrillion etc are ambiguous.

A thousand million or a million million are not.

The issue is that there are two ways to interpret what the higher -illions mean.

In the US you just go to the next -illion each time you multiply by thousand. The European version has the next -illion every time you multiply by a million and -illiards for the intermediate thousand times steps.

The European way simply tells you to take a million to the nth power. A **bi**llion is a million to second power. A **tri**llion is a million to the third power and **quad**rillion is a million to the fourth power. It works very well.

For the American way there is no easy way to make sense of how the prefixes and the actual numbers get together. You might say it tells you to which power plus one you need to take a thousand but that is not very intuitive.

In any case two systems exist. Normally within a single country or language the system used is clear, but when communicating across the globe in a language that might not be everyone’s native tongue this can lead to mistakes.

To avoid ambiguity scientist either simply talk about taking 10 to the nth power or when talking to lay people talk about thousands or millions of millions. It also manages to get across the vastness of these numbers better, too.