Have the Numbers Gotten Too Big to Understand?

In 1956, a mathematician by the name of George A. Miller came up with the magical number seven. Plus or minus two digits, seven numbers are about the most humans are capable of processing. Perhaps this is why phone numbers are seven digits long.

Have the Numbers Gotten Too Big to Understand?
Photo: Claudecf, Creative Commons, Flickr

The longest string of numbers that anyone has ever memorized is less than 100,000. Akira Haraguchi from Japan set a new world record by memorizing the first 83,431 decimal places of pi (3.14159) in 2005.

Considering how difficult it is for us to conceive of numbers above 100,000, how are we supposed to understand the enormity of a $700 billion bailout? Or a potential $1 trillion federal budget deficit? How much more is $100 billion than $10 billion? Doesn’t $1 trillion sound a lot like a zillion, jillion or gazillion?

In its definition of the suffix “-illion”, Wikipedia explains, “Words ending in the sound ‘-illion’, such as zillion, jillion, and gazillion, are often used as fictitious names for an unspecified, large number by analogy to names of large numbers such as million, billion and trillion. Their size is dependent upon the context, but can typically be considered large enough to be unfathomable by the average human mind.”

If a large part of why we got into this economic crisis is that borrowers didn’t understand the “creative financing” involved in their mortgages, how can we expect them to decipher the almost fictional-sounding numbers cited in current headlines? How can any of us be expected to conceive of numbers of this magnitude?

Tax payers simply want to know how much is coming out of our pockets, regardless of whether the tab we’re picking up amounts to billions, a trillion or a zillion.