Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Trillions and Trillions Adds Up

There is real freedom in creating one's own blog. Foremost is the absence of those pesky "fact checkers", the busybodies employed by most magazines and newspapers to verify, well, facts. In a blog, one has the option of verifying the facts ones-own-self or--and this is much, much faster--simply making stuff up. What you are about to read has been personally fact-checked by the author. This practice is known in the publishing field as "on the author" which indicates that the writer takes responsibility. If there is to be legal action, his or her buns are on the line.

Yesterday, our newest Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner (his mother calls him Snooky) came before the Senate Finance Committee, an assemblage of Senators who pretend to fully understand "finance" (and in the case of their re-election campaign war chests, they do) to explain the administration's bailout plan for the nation's ailing financial industry. Apparently, the whole show didn't go that well and the Dow Jones indicator took a nearly 400 point beating, especially the bank stocks. My bet is that Snooky found this outcome problematic and called his mother for advice. "Old Lady Geithner" (albeit she was only in her 30's at the time) was the long-time treasurer of P.S. 419 PTA during much of 70's and the books always balanced under her watch.

In any case, much of the discussion in the Senate hearing involved how many "trillions of dollars" would be involved in righting our listing financial ship. Over the past several months the media have been tossing around the term "trillion" with, dare I say, abandon, without providing the average Joe the Plumber (who now has a national speaking tour contract, a fact that I find extremely disturbing) with context or perspective. I'm here to help.

A trillion: a 1 followed by 12 zeros plus four commas. 1,000,000,000,000. If you really want to get a banker's attention, place a dollar sign before the 1. Still, even in this stark numeric presentation, a trillion is an abstraction. What you need is a concrete illustration. Okey dokey.

The average pubic hair is 60 microns in diameter. Not all pubic hairs are created equal, with fine blond hair being somewhat smaller and coarse dark hair larger. For reasons that I will explain directly, I shall use the worldwide average. Picturing exactly how science developed this average gives me a slight case of the shudders. Now, were we to lay 1 trillion pubic hairs cheek by jowl, that is to say side-by-side not end-to-end, and assuming that they have cheeks and jowls (at this small size it's very hard to tell) this collection would extend from the earth to the moon and then nearly half way back. This thin mat of pubic hair could act as a route map for future moon exploration although they will not want to get too close because the hairs would likely scatter quite easily, even in the vacuum of space.

Collecting 1 trillion pubic hairs might prove more interesting than actually figuring out how to arrange them side-by-side and extending them into space. Both endeavors, however, would require a very large workforce, a fact with implications for the "creating jobs" part of the Stimulus Package, yet another trillion dollar government project. Given the total population of the earth, factoring out those who have no pubic hair, the very young (not yet) and the very old (not anymore), the trillion hair collection would certainly have a wide range of hair type, from extremely fine (think Gwyneth Paltrow) to quite coarse (think Whoopie Goldberg) which leaves me comfortable with my calculation's 60 micron average.

If one didn't want to bother with the difficulties of space placement, 1 trillion pubic hairs could be laid (lain?) side-by-side in 150 rows between Atlanta, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama. Then again, what with earth's atmosphere, air currents and tens of thousand of all terrain vehicle enthusiasts between the two cities, maintaining an accurate count could prove difficult. Better, I think, to simply imagine the illustration, although that would have no impact on the jobs front (for those of you considering a "public pubic hair collector's" spot on the government payroll).

Nearly suffice to say that most of us have a tenuous grasp on the true magnitude of 1 trillion. I say "nearly" because there is one additional example that really brings it home. In the vein of several illustrations that I have read recently regarding time equivalents of a mere 1 billion, e.g., "1 billion seconds ago, Jimmy Carter became president in 1977", let me use a time yardstick to capture 1 trillion, which is one thousand billion or 32,000 years before anyone had heard of the peanut farmer from Georgia. Here we go.

One trillion nanoseconds ago it was 16.6 MINUTES AGO. Your lukewarm coffee was piping hot back then. Just over a quarter of an hour ago you were doing something productive instead of reading this and then "Wham", a trillion nanoseconds whizzed by. Did you put them to good use? Hardly. You were thinking about collecting pubic hairs off of bars of soap or perhaps plucking them a few at a time from Gwyneth Paltrow, an activity that some critics would say was appropriate payback considering some of her work. Some of you were likely thinking of other fantasy celebrity donors, although very few probably recalled poor Whoopie, while still others got the urge to dust off the old ATV and go out for a little environmental destruction. No, none of this has been productive and I consider this my calling.


No comments:

Post a Comment