Innumeracy and Numbers That Matter

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I recently read Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos. The book explores the dangers of a mathematically illiterate public in an era when a solid understanding of numbers is essential to comprehend the major decisions being made in society and politics.

Though I felt his writing was a little too academic and borderline pompous at times, Paulos' Innumeracy is loaded with enough fascinating material to make it worth the read. I highly recommend it if you want to gain a better understanding of the probabilities and statistics you come across everyday reading a newspaper or browsing the internet.

Million Billion Trillion

Relating it to presentations, one topic the book explored was how poorly so many of us understand the magnitudes of big numbers like "million", "billion", or "trillion" — numbers that frequently get thrown around in presentations.

Do you think you've been alive a trillion seconds? Not even close. To illustrate the relative magnitudes of these big numbers, consider this excerpt from the book.

"For example, it takes only about eleven and a half days for a million seconds to tick away, whereas almost thirty-two years are required for a billion seconds to pass. What about trillions? Modern Homo sapiens is probably less than 10 trillion seconds old; and the subsequent complete disappearance of the Neanderthal version of early Homo sapiens occurred only a trillion or so seconds ago. Agriculture's been here for approximately 300 billion seconds (ten thousand years), writing for about 150 billion seconds, and rock music has been around for only about one billion seconds."

It's interesting stuff, especially when you then come across figures like the estimated $10 trillion US national debt, or the nearly 3 billion people worldwide living in poverty. Sometimes it's a little too easy to become desensitized to the true magnitude of these numbers.