Making Sense of Your World Through Scale
What do natural disasters, gravitational waves from space, and Taylor Swift have to do with one another? The obvious answer is “not much.”
However, these seemingly disparate phenomena all have one very important thing in common: the requirement to comprehend and consume extreme numbers – both very large and very small.
Our world, including current events, is full of facts and figures that challenge our understanding. For example, wildfires have destroyed over 220,000 acres in California alone in the most recent spate of horrific fires there, and more than 8.5 million acres have burned in the western U.S this year to date. While this sounds like a big number, what does it mean?
In a completely different realm, scientists on Monday announced that they had detected tiny ripples in the fabric of space-time cause by the merger of two cores of dead stars. Gravitational waves are extremely tiny, which is why scientists need to build special, super-sensitive detectors placed thousands of miles apart to make such detections. But how small are gravitational waves really?
And then there’s Taylor Swift. When she launched her latest single this summer, it nearly, as they say, broke the Internet. Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” released on August 25th, was streamed over 10 million times on Spotify, and garnered 24 million views of the video over the course of its first weekend. We’re told that this is a new record, but by a lot or a little?
This is the crux of the issue: we are barraged with various numbers and figures, some of which sound incomprehensible, throughout our daily lives. From the economy to the environment, from popular culture to current science, and practically anything in between, there are many values that can be difficult to grasp: billions of tons of ice lost in Antarctica, trillions of U.S. dollars worth of debt, quadrillions of calculations per second in a super computer, and so forth (a quadrillion is, amazingly, not a made up number, it is a 10 with 24 zeroes after it).