Friday, February 06, 2009

Vast Numbers and Useful Examples

The news surrounding our economic crisis, including the US stimulus package and the bailouts of the banking and auto industry, have us flinging around huge numbers that are difficult to grasp. That's why I appreciated an article that appeared in my newsreader today from CNN.

In the article Numb and Number: Is trillion the new billion? Christine Romans uses the following examples from Temple University math professor John Allen Paulos to give meaning to million, billion and trillion.
"A million seconds is about 11½ days. A billion seconds is about 32 years, and a trillion seconds is 32,000 years," Paulos said. "People tend to lump them together, perhaps because they rhyme, but if you think of it in terms of a jail sentence, do you want to go to jail for 11½ days or 32 years or maybe 32,000 years? So, they're vastly different, and people generally don't really have a real visceral grasp of the differences among them."
I find this type of example much more comprehensible than the others I've read, such as a stack of bills reaching 1/3 of the way to the moon.

I don't know that as a computer teacher in an elementary school I'm going to get to use this example in the next few days or months, but I know it will help give meaning to the news as I read it.

How do you make large numbers accessible to your students?