The word itself—billion—is a beautiful thing. That “b” in the front gives it a special pop, a bursting impact into the conversation that’s followed with “i“’s and “l” in a row like a bright city skyline. Billion is glossy, glitzy, rolling off your tongue like lollipops down a waterslide. A billion.
(Funny enough, there is another word for the natural number 1,000,000,000: a milliard, not to be confused with the fowl you throw bread crust to at the pond. A milliard is a billion, and vice versa, as if to the actual digits (1,000,000,000) it makes a difference.)
A billion, as in, of course, a billion dollars. Cha-ching. But other than currency and people, a billion doesn’t enter the lexicon very often. Because other than for scientists and math nerds, a billion isn’t practical. We never use that number in our day-to-day mathematical interactions (“stir in a billion nanocups of milk and a few billion nanospoons of butter…”), and really, thinking about that much stuff makes my head hurt.
How many plankton are in the sea? Grains of sand on all the beaches? Water molecules in the ocean? Grass blades in the planet’s history? Moments in a second?
Speaking of time, about a billion seconds ago America and Russia were tangled in the Cold War, a billion minutes ago the Roman Empire was entering the height of its power, and a billion hours ago we were inventing the wheel the first time.
Now think about a billion dollars. A billion dollar bills stacked on top of each other would be nearly 70 miles high, and despite each one being printed the same, with a sober President Washington and the all-seeing eye atop the pyramid, no two are exact, varying shades of ink, creases, edges, wear, tear, dirt, amount of times spent, time left in circulation, purchases made, hands passed through.
The idea of a billion people would take more cognitive RAM to process than our brain can fit inside this cranium, and that’s if we’re just thinking of them as clones of each other, not as billions of unique bodies, personalities, perceptions, histories, philosophies, existential drives, favorite desserts. They say the human brain can hold about seven numbers in consciousness at a time, and memory champions can get that to a few hundred. That’s nothing compared to seven billion, or the hundreds of billions of food, water, and air they ingest each day, or the trillions of dollars they spend, or the quadrillions of actions and interactions they enact, and how do you even count an action? Where does one end and other begin? And if there are more than three hundred quadrillion ants crawling through the planet (about 150 lbs. of ant for every human, according to unsubstantiated internet sources, the possible inaccuracy of which reinforces my point here), how many interactions do they go through in a day? And would they even count them the same? How do ants perceive space and time?
All of this, dirt, water, people, and ants, not to mention all the other sealife and landlife and individual atoms of atmosphere, all compacted into one spherical blue rock whizzing through through empty space, itself just infinitesimal in sprawling ocean of billions upon billions of planets and stars.
At this point, I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay homage to the poet-scientist most famous for his use of and reverence to the number.