Posted by: John Colby | Saturday October 11 2008

Unimaginable Numbers

Bank rescues are in the news, and of course we’re all affected by them. But the numbers involved are somewhat larger than we’re used to. We can glibly talk of the £500 billion rescue package for UK banks but the number may not be comprehensible. Even though it’s broken down into £50 billion capital injection, £200 billion short term loans and £250 billion loan guarantees, can you really imagine those sums of money? Can you even imagine the net worth amassed by Bill Gates (who’s been toppled from the top of the richest people list)? Can you imagine a million pound bonus?

When I was regularly leading field trips in geology the question of millions came up, because “millions of years” is the usual measure of time in that discipline. We used units of time to build up millions. Here it is – with modifications for the current climate.

Think of a second.

Think of a minute. Could you close your eyes for a minute plus or minus a few seconds? Very few people can, unless they count seconds while they have their eyes closed.

So what about multiples of a thousand?

  • A thousand seconds is 16 minutes 40 seconds
  • A thousand minutes is a long waking day, 16 hours 40 minutes.
  • A thousand hours is just short of six weeks.
  • A thousand days – 2.75 years – just about the time for someone to join an English university in a September and graduate three years later in June.
  • A thousand weeks is the time from being born and about the average age for leaving home – 19 ¼ years. Parents may well start counting weeks if they realise this.
  • A thousand months is a good lifespan for the people in the UK, just over 83 years.

But that’s a thousand – what about multiples of a million?

  • A million seconds is just over 11 ½ days
  • A million minutes is just short of 23 months.
  • Very few people indeed live to be a million hours old, as it’s over 114 years.
  • A million days takes us back 2749 years, back to 740BCE, around the time of the foundation of Rome.
  • A million weeks ago we’d all have been very cold. It was the middle of the coldest Devensian Glaciation , over 19,000 years ago.
  • A million months takes us back more than 83,000 years, At that time Britain was in the warmer Ipswichian period, when forests covered much of Britain and animals like elephant, hippopotamus, beer, bear, lion, boar and hyena would have been present. But no humans or horses.

Translating our time based approach to money takes a little thought. It should be apparent that we’re dealing with big numbers. It’s imagining them that takes the effort.

While we’re here – how about billions?

  • A billion seconds -32 years
  • A billion minutes – 1,900 years – if we go back we’re in early Roman Britain.
  • A billion hours – over 114,000 years
  • A billion days – 2,7 million years ago – humans of any type hadn’t evolved.
  • A billion weeks – 19,000,000 (that’s nineteen million) years ago.
  • A billion months takes us back more than 83million years.

So what about the total financial rescue package, £500 billion? Converting to units of time we get:

  • 500 billion seconds we ‘re back in the Devensian Ice Age.
  • 500 billion minutes – get towards a million years
  • 500 billion days and that 1,347 million years. 540 million years is when the first shelly life appears on earth.
  • 500 billion weeks is almost double the age of the solar system.
  • 500 billion months is three times the age of the Universe.

So we’re dealing with some pretty big numbers.

There’s about 60 million people in the UK, and of them about 27.3 million pay income tax. If we divide the 500 billion by the 27.3 million we get the liability on each taxpayer for this bailout of over £18,300 each.

And that’s still a lot of money.



  1. john that is very helpful.Just to take your reasoning a bit further,suppose we take the average life span of 83 years and minus our age that gives me 22 years to pay it ie£832 per year.Now suppose that inflation rises owing to tax increases and rises in the supply of money,(right) to 10% per year compound for 22 years.That £832 will actually cost me 8 pence in real money.Do not try working this out at home because you can’t.

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