A month or so ago I read Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos, a popular mathematics book from the 1980’s. One of Paulos’ recommendations had to do with rationalizing the size of numbers. His point was basically that we all hear large numbers thrown around everyday, but we don’t really understand their size. A casual perusal of today’s New York Times netted an article about the Swiss bank UBS, which had to write down $37 billion in losses. The article was about a meeting of 6,000 UBS shareholders. The Times reports the bank has $3.1trillian in assets. For most people, once a number gets over a certain threshold, it is just a large number. However, when you look at these numbers in a different way, their difference becomes more clear. 6000 people means a person for every second for the last 1 hour and 40 minutes. $37 billion means a dollar for every second for the last 1173 years. $37 trillion is every second since 1,173,262 years ago, around the appearance of Homo Erectus.

The reason I am bringing this up is that I am reading a large book about Nazi Germany’s economy. It is a tome, with 800 pages total. As I was reading, I got to thinking about how 4000 US soldiers have died so far in Iraq. If each page of my book was a soldier, it would take five copies of the book to make a page for each soldier. Flipping through the pages and imagining a face for each page is incredibly disconcerting, and really drives home the human cost of the war. I recommend you go right now to your bookshelf, pick out the thickest book, and have a try yourself.