How big is a trillion?

By Murray Bourne, 05 Mar 2008

Not so long ago, a million dollars was an unimaginably large amount of money.

Now, with new millionaires being produced in China every day, (at last count there were almost 350,000 of them), it's time to change our idea of what is meant by "an unimaginably large amount of money".

Let's move to billionaires. China now has 106 billionaires, up from 15 one year ago. So that means billionaires are appearing at the rate of 2 per week. And this is China, which is still officially a 3rd world communist country.

But wait a minute. What is a billion?

If you ask an older German or English person, they will answer 1,000,000,000,000. That is, a "million million" (the 2 millions is where the "bi" part of the word billion comes from) or 1012. This was common usage until quite recently.

However, the French (around 200 years ago) decided that a billion should be 1,000,000,000 (or 109) and the Americans (who were not so fond of the British at the time) followed suit. The English and Germans would have called this "a thousand million".

These days, most news and economics reports (from any country) use the French/USA meaning of a billion.

A Trillion

Now for a trillion. This is taken to mean 1,000,000,000,000 (1012) worldwide (notice that this is what the British used to call "billion").

Now that we (sort of) know what a trillion is, let's have a look at some interesting and disturbing information involving the trillion number (US$).

  • $121 trillion - the value of the world's known oil reserves (assuming oil stays around $100 per barrel).
  • $1.3 trillion - the amount per year that OPEC countries are currently receiving from oil
  • $1.3 trillion - total GDP of all of Africa
  • $14 trillion - GDP of the USA
  • $9.3 trillion - total U.S. federal debt (about $79,000 on average for each American taxpayer). (Source)
  • $2 trillion - total cost of the war in Iraq (growing by $200 million per day) Source

Data source: The Edge Singapore, unless otherwise noted.

See the 5 Comments below.

5 Comments on “How big is a trillion?”

  1. Ross Isenegger says:

    Hi Zac,

    My recent blog post is also about large numbers - it links to a Monty Python song, an art exhibit and the Power of 10 video.

  2. Murray says:

    Hi Ross. Thanks a lot for the link to Running the Numbers.

    I liked it so much that I wrote a post on it, too: Visual statistics - the madness of consumerism.

    Thanks also for the Monty Python link. As The Meaning of Life concluded:

    The meaning of life is to try to be nice to people, avoid eating too much fat, read a good book, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds, and nations.

    Amen to that.

  3. Huzefa says:

    was very helpful in solving physics(mechanics) and economics

  4. kyoko12 says:

    Actually, in Germany/Austria, we still use "billion" to mean a "million million". To mean "a thousand million", we use "milliarde".

  5. Murray says:

    Thanks for the input, Kyoko12.

    Here's yet another example of our (supposedly) precise and consistent system of math being not so consistent after all.

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