How Much Is a BILLION?
Hey there! We've got some good news and some bad news for you. Let's do the good news first, shall we? If you've stumbled across this page when trying to make sense of the numbers in your great-aunt Mildred's inheritance, then prepare to start cackling maniacally and rubbing your hands together like a Disney villain: good times lie ahead.
However, if you've found this page while desperately googling because you're trying to understand the latest water charges since your awful, bath-loving friend Alan moved in (3 baths a day? What is he, a narwhal??), then you should probably sit down and have a stiff drink before you read on. Maybe a whole bath-full of stiff drink, in fact. Today, my friend, we are talking billions.
But how much IS a billion?
Well, like so many things when it comes to measuring up, it can vary a bit across the pond. In the US, a billion has always been < Dr. Evil > ONE THOUSAND MILLION< / Dr. Evil > . In numbers, that's 1,000,000,000 with, count 'em, nine zeroes.
In the UK, traditionally a billion was < Dr. Evil second attempt > ONE MILLION MILLION < / second attempt > . Mate, that's 12 zeroes (1,000,000,000,000). But what's a difference of three zeroes between friends? A lot, as it happens. A doctor telling you that you have a billion seconds to live would receive a stony reception in the US, as that adds up to 32 years. In the land of red phone boxes, cups of tea and roast beef, though, it would mean 32,000 years. Suddenly, British immortality is explained: Doctor Who regenerating across centuries, and Mick Jagger, looking youthful at just 240 years old - it all makes sense.
Everyone knows that Americans are super cool (massive burgers, drive-in movies and house parties with those little red paper cups) and that's why the Brits are always copying them. So in 1974, the UK government decided to try on a leather jacket and talk like the Fonz, and it began using the US sense of "billion" for all official figures released. So for the rest of this article, any use of "billion" reflects the current US and UK usage, which is a thousand million. Nine zeroes. It's basically a universal now. Sorry if that disappoints the Brit celebrating - ahem, sorry, mourning - great-aunt Mildred's passing, but hey, a thousand million quid is nothing to be sniffed at. That's a lot of bubble baths!
So, what does a billion look like?
Some things are too extraordinary to visualise. Take your roommate Alan. Can you even picture him getting out of the bath and picking up a vacuum cleaner? (Wait, let's also picture him putting clothes on before picking up the vacuum cleaner.) Similarly, can you even imagine a billion dollars? A billion cats? A billion jars of Nutella, all with your name on them, hidden somewhere that Alan will never find them?
Let's go back to the idea that a billion seconds is 32 years. How many years, then, is a million seconds? Have a little think. The answer? None. It is no years. It is less than 12 days. That's how vast the difference is between million and billion.
Now raid your piggy bank and see if you can find a billion pennies or cents to pile up. That's 10 million dollars, pounds or euros, so it's probably not worth wasting your time actually smashing open Percy Pig right now. But just imagine: one billion cents in a stack would be 870 miles high. Or if you laid them side by side in a line, it would stretch 6,213 miles, which would reach 2/3 of the way round the circumference of Mercury.
And those billion cats: did you know that the average pussycat yowls at around 45 decibels? One billion cats all yowling together - 45bn decibels - would be excruciating to listen to, not just because it's 5am AND THERE'S ALREADY FOOD IN THE DISH, MADAME FLUFFINGTON, SO JUST SHUT UP OKAY, but because humans feel pain from 130db of noise, so 45 billion decibels is unfathomable; the loudest sound on record was 310db when Krakatoa erupted.
Now, a billion jars of Nutella - even if you inexplicably bought the littlest ones (200g), that's 200,000,000kg. Two hundred million kilos, or the weight of 40,000 elephants. We will spare you the calorific calculation here. Go ahead, enjoy your pancakes. And whilst you do that, check out our article about the trillion.
Here's to you, Mildred!
Written by Becky Kleanthous
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Last update: 28 June 2017