People aren’t cut out to understand very large or very small numbers, at least not with any sense of scale.
Once you look a few orders of magnitude beyond everyday life, things quickly become literally unimaginable.
We can probably grasp one million.
For someone on low wages it might be the sum total of a lifetime of pay-packets.
For someone like Elon Musk that amount joins the bank balance party before lunch time on a Monday.
To give Elon’s wealth some perspective, consider the following.
If you began working for $30,000 an hour when the Great Pyramid of Cheops was built in Egypt, by today you would still have less money than Elon.
Large numbers are mind boggling, but rates of growth are truly astounding.
The ancient board game backgammon uses a doubling cube which means things can quickly get out of hand if you are playing for money.
To illustrate doubling, an old story has a king who asked his accountant how he wanted to be paid.
The royal exchequer suggested filling a chess board with rice grains. On the first square place one grain of rice, on the second square place two grains. On the third square place four grains and on the fourth square place eight. And so on, doubling until all squares on the board had been accounted for.
Initially the king thought this was a sweet deal until the bill arrived for 5000 billion tonnes of rice, enough to fill 150 million Olympic swimming pools (which is the standard measure for lots of stuff).
In the coming years Australia plans to obtain nuclear submarines so we citizens can sleep soundly in our beds.
Unless that bed was inside one of the 5000 homes burnt in bushfires or carried away in the floods in the past couple of years.
If we set aside half a billion dollars from the subs’ eye-watering $250 billion budget, we could give each household $100,000 to get them back to sleeping in their own beds.
Yeah, naa. Tell ’em they’re dreaming.