What is a Billion? | Understanding Large Numbers

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One billion is 1,000,000,000. In other words, that’s one-thousand-million. Or, for one final notation option: 109. But what does that really mean? Most people are not able to visualize extremely large numbers accurately, so the sense of scale and context implied by a billion is lost on most.

Why We Are Bad at Big Numbers

The main reason is simple: lack of practice. In most people’s day to day lives, numbers on the scale of millions, billions, and trillions are entirely irrelevant. Even taking in our species as a whole, large numbers were not particularly useful until recent history. Hunters and gatherers didn’t need to contextualize billions – they probably didn’t even need to visualize or understand hundreds of thousands. Some languages don’t even have specific words for very large numbers.

On the flip side, practice makes perfect. This is illustrated perfectly by a weird quirk in number comprehension data: Italian people did consistently better at comparing and understanding large numbers than the average study participant. The researchers theorize that this is because of Italy’s economy at the time – the depressed value of the lire meant simple purchases like cars or motorbikes could involve prices in the millions and billions. Italians at the time had to adapt to using and comparing large numbers on a regular basis, and developed a stand-out ability to do so.

How to Understand Extremely Large Numbers

Consistent practice is the best option if you’re going to be working with large numbers on a regular basis. But in the meantime, there are other shortcuts. Make sure the unit being used is intuitive and familiar; if not, convert into a unit that is for you.

You can also use batching – break the number down into smaller pieces that you can visualize, and then make sure the number of batches is also visualizable for you. For distances, you could break anything measured in yards into the respective number of football fields. But if something is a billion football fields long, you’re in the weeds again, so there’s an upper limit to this strategy.

Another option: add a variable. Time is one great option, but you can use any natural extension of the data. The national debt, for example, may be too big in your nation to comprehend straight-out. But if you divide that by the number of citizens in the nation, you’re likely to end up with a number that makes immediate sense.

Visualizing One Billion

What is a Billion? | Sporcle Blog

Another trick is simply finding a visual aid where possible. A billion dollars in $100 bills may look different than a billion stars, but if something is talked about often enough, there’ll be a visual reference you can use.

The UK Billion

Just to make things a little more complicated, the UK used to use two different meanings for the word billion. One tracks with the meaning as outlined here, and the other does not. It instead means 1,000,000,000,000, i.e. one million million, or 1012. This definition is not widely used, but does pop up from time to time.

Sporcle’s Billions

At the time of this writing, the number of quiz plays on Sporcle is approaching three billion. To put that in context, that would mean one user, playing one minute quizzes, would need to play quizzes continuously for over 5707 years to reach this number alone!

To catch up with our upcoming events to celebrate the three billion benchmark, check out our blog post: Three Billion and Counting.