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Place Value:

How Big's a Billion?


Today's Snack: A famous quotation that used the word "billion" was by the late astronomer Carl Sagan. He once said, with so much enthusiasm on his face that people made a joke out of it, that the universe has "BILLIONS and BILLIONS of stars." Actually, he pronounced it "BEEEEELLIONS." In memory of that famous one-liner, let's enjoy a starfruit! Slice and dip into a mixture of a tablespoon of cream cheese, beaten, with a little pineapple juice mixed it 'til it's a little runny. Drink the rest of the pineapple juice to go with your snack.






Paper and pencil | as many pennies as you can get

4 or more pieces of graph paper



A billion is a difficult number to comprehend, but one advertising agency did a good job of putting that figure into some perspective:


  • A billion seconds ago it was 1959.


  • A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.


  • A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age.


  • A billion days ago no one walked on the earth on two feet.


  • A billion dollars ago was only 8 hours and 20 minutes, at the rate our government is spending it.


Here are three exercises to help you grasp just how big a billion is:


1. After Hurricane Katrina wrecked New Orleans in 2005, Congress was asked to pay $250 billion from all American taxpayers, as a gift, to the government in New Orleans, to help them rebuild New Orleans. What if the money were paid directly to the people who were victims of the hurricane, or lost a house there? Do these division problems by hand (answers below):


A.     If $250 billion is distributed to each of the 484,674 residents of New Orleans, how much would each person get?





B.     If the $250 billion is divided among the owners of the 188,251 homes in New Orleans, how much would be allocated for each house?






2. Stack pennies and measure them at different heights. How many pennies does it take to make an inch? How many in one foot? One yard (which is three feet)? If you can figure that out, you can figure this out: how tall would a stack of one billion pennies be? No, you don't have to gather that many pennies! Just do the math, based on how many pennies are in one inch, one foot or one yard. Remember, there are 5,280 feet in one mile.









3. They say there are poisons in our drinking water that they can measure down to one part per billion. So there may be one drop of toxic stuff in every one billion drops of water. Now imagine an ocean that is one billion drops of water in area - 100 million drops wide and 100 million drops tall. You'll probably have to tape together four pieces of graph paper to get this done. Chart out this huge imaginary ocean on graph paper so that each square represents a million drops of water. That'll be 100 squares across and 100 squares down. Now, in this imaginary ocean, find the center, and mark a tiny dot to represent where that one drop of poison might be.







Answers to #1: A. $516, 528 B. $1,329,787 C. $2,066,012

By Susan Darst Williams Math 2010

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