• D. Randall Faro

Billions Schmillions

In Why Does the World Exist author Jim Holt notes that “There are a hundred billion galaxies just in the little region of the universe we can observe, each with a hundred billion stars.” Coming across that fact brought to mind a 1984 book I read several decades ago, A Hundred Billion Stars by Italian astronomer Mario Rigutti. We throw around such numbers as if we understand them.


If someone gave you a buck a second, 24/7, it would take 31.7 years to reach a billion dollars. To put that in practical terms, America’s newest carrier being built, the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford, is projected to cost $12.8 billion. If the shipbuilder was handing out a dollar a second to the workers, it would take 405 years to reach the total cost. At that rate, the ship’s keel would have been laid with Pocahontas watching.


One hundred billion is 100,000,000,000. A hundred billion galaxies each with a hundred billion stars comes to 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of them . . . give or take a billion. After all, these are just educated guesses.


To repeat myself, we throw around such numbers as if we understand them. Granted, we know intellectually what they mean, but the real-life, real-time apprehension of such figures is beyond our simple brains. For instance, the nearest stars to Earth are in the Alpha Centauri triple-star system, about 4.37 light-years away. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, so a light year (the distance that light travels in one year) comes to just under 6 trillion miles . . . making the distance to Alpha Centauri twenty-six trillion (26,000,000,000,000) miles. If you need to get there by next Tuesday, forget it.


These figures might be quite interesting, but their significance – at least for me – pales to insignificance compared to the love I have for my wife and children. How many blinking stars there are meant nothing to me when incoming mortars sent us diving for bunkers in Vietnam. If the doc informed me that I’ve got cancer, I wouldn’t care less what’s on the other side of the moon.


Yes, the world is big. Yes, it can be interesting, even fun, maybe even profitable in some futuristic way, to explore mathematically. But, playing the numbers game, a much more vital concern is the 37 trillion cells (you can figure out the zeros) in my body . . . or the bodies of my neighbors. The Dalai Lama said: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” Albert Schweitzer said: “The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.” Jesus said: “Love one another.” The wisest men and woman of all ages taught and lived these numberless precepts for life.


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