How to Understand Extreme Numbers

The late statistics wizard Hans Rosling, who died this month at age 68,  brought at least 10 toilet paper rolls to some of his beloved presentations.  He would stack them into a tower on a table, each roll representing one billion people. In a 2012 talk at the Skoll World Forum, he used the rolls to show how, as the number of children in the world—2 billion—holds steady, the global population will rise from 7 billion to the (also indefinitely stable) figure of about 10 billion. “We are debating peak oil,” he remarked, “but we know that we have reached peak child.”

With his whimsical props and other colorful visualizations, Rosling was renowned as a translator between large, almost unfathomable numbers and the language of everyday experience. He understood that most of us need visualizations or analogies to mentally work with millions, billions, and other big powers of 10 that help define our world. They’re important for decisions that affect daily life, such as how money gets invested and which government policies you support. But just how well—or poorly—do people understand quantities in powers of 10

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus15 min readPsychology
Humans Are Wired for Goodness: We’re not as bad as the headlines make us out to be.
Nicholas Christakis and I are on the same page: We would definitely sacrifice our lives to save a billion strangers, perhaps even several hundred million, plucked at random from Earth’s population. But, for sure, not a thousand strangers, or a millio
Nautilus6 min readPsychology
Why Did Witch Hunts Go Viral?
It’s hard to make sense of witch hunts. Many people of early modern Europe and colonial America seemed to have genuinely believed that witches posed a serious threat. But if witch trials—like the ones in Salem, Massachusetts, and in European communit
Nautilus5 min read
Physicists Peer Inside a Fireball of Quantum Matter
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. A gold wedding band will melt at around 1,000 degrees Celsius and vaporize at about 2,800 degrees, but these changes are just the beginning of what can happen to matter. Crank up the