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  • Three years ago I taught a grade 7 math class. Three boys who just hadn’t got it. Seth explained that when he went in a math class his brain froze. Abdullah just smiled at everything and Matthew was largely absent even when he was in the room. We spent the year learning to go step by step. We acted problems out. I taught positive and negative number interaction as gang wars. We laughed a lot. Bit by bit they finished homework. And we did projects.

    Big numbers were a challenge. All those zeros. Before we ventured into the very great and very small with scientific notation I thought we should make sure we had some kind of a concept of the big numbers that politicians and economists throw around every day. Just up to billions and trillions, chump change these days. We snapped our fingers for a minute and then did the calculations to see how many years we would have to snap continually to get to a billion. They clicked away. 50. So that is 60 times 50 for an hour. OK 3000 in an hour. It came out to 38 plus years for a billion and 3801 years and some days to get to a trillion snaps. Just snapping those fingers. No bathroom breaks, no sleeping, no nothing but click, click, click.

    We don’t really get big numbers. Geologic time here on earth is hard enough. Get cosmic about it and it goes into scientific notation and people nod but even comparisons are beyond us. Literally. There are some great pictures to help understand what a trillion one dollar bills or a trillion dollars in $100 bills would look like. The basic idea is that it is a huge amount. A stack of $1 bills that would reach a quarter of the way to the moon (one person’s calculations were that that it would go to moon and back 4 times but that seems to be a google myth). But to say if you spent a million dollars a day from the birth of Christ and you still would be a day late and a dollar short on a trillion. That is beyond the pale even to a dedicated follower of fashion to say nothing of a retail therapy true believer.

    Understanding the US debt (close to 16 trillion) or the budget (more than 3 trillion) just as numbers, not to mention implications and dynamics in the various arenas of reality (political, social or international…….) just as numbers. It is too much.

    We don’t get big numbers. They are beyond our scale. But they are within our grasp.

    All the big numbers are little numbers left to multiply. And it is our individual choices and habits and behaviours multiplied and extended that make up the big numbers.

    It can be our choices and actions and mindfulness that can build new monuments.

    It is our choice. The New Tower of Babel or a new fabric of human experience and existence. Both are ours to create. It is all whether we will be victims of the big numbers or whether we will use them to raise us to heights unimagined.
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