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  • Understanding millions, billions and trillions is a fifth grade benchmark.
    At that age,
    in any age,
    what’s a few more columns in the place value chart?

    Matteo has a perfect paper,
    unmarred by eraser,
    hands behind his head,
    chair tilted back,
    he surveys the room.
    He’s won the race today,
    first one to done.
    “How did you solve that,” I ask
    nodding at the problem on the page.
    He shakes his head, taps the page with his pencil.
    “Just count the places. That’s where the decimal goes.”
    From his place of algorithmic security, he looks down at me.
    “All those zeros ,” I say. “That’s a lot of nothing.”

    I wonder if I should tell him a story:
    Once upon a time,
    I taught a fifth grade class about big numbers.
    But he’s taken his paper to be checked.
    The only answer he wants is the right one.

    Once upon a time in fifth grade,
    we did a project. Finger tapping.
    We counted the number of times they could tap a finger on the table in 30 seconds.
    We used that to calculate taps per minute and taps per day.

    How long to tap a million times? I asked.
    A million is about three days, non-stop.

    How about a billion? I asked.
    That’s about eight years, non-stop.
    Almost a lifetime of working days,
    with weekends and holidays, lunch and recess,
    bathroom breaks.

    And a trillion?
    If you started tapping before the pyramids and carried on to now.
    That’s about trillion.

    I think it is a story for his age,
    our age,
    the age we share.
    The age of the numerical deluge,
    as the flood of data rises fast and faster.

    Everywhere we turn numbers, percentages, totals,
    ratios all out of proportion.
    Numbers so easy and light on the tongue;
    used for levees, used for dams, used for floodgates and dikes
    used to bolster and shore up every weary supposition
    back up claims and levy accusations, assign blame and winnow winners from losers.
    How else will we know if the numbers don’t tell us so.

    But if you hear that in the United States:
    9,960 pieces of junk mail are printed, shipped, delivered, and disposed of every three seconds

    60,000 plastic bags are used every five seconds.

    106,000 aluminum cans are used every thirty seconds.

    139,000 cigarettes that are smoked and discarded every 15 seconds

    183,000 birds die every day from exposure to agricultural pesticides.

    260,000 gallons of gasoline are burned in motor vehicles every minute.

    296,203 elective breast augmentation surgeries were performed in 2010

    400,000 plastic bottles are consumed every minute.

    1,000,000 plastic cups are used on airline flights every six hours.

    3,000,000 students dropped out of high school in 2013

    100,000,000 trees are cut yearly to make the paper for junk mail.


    It isn’t the new releases from Pandora’s ancient box,
    or the old companions of the human condition

    It is the order of magnitude.
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