Last updated: 13 February 2001

WHO WANTS TO BE.....(aware of how BIG a MILLION really is)?

From: sherrodc@ipa.net (Clay Sherrod)

How BIG is a million....a billion...a TRILLION? We hear the terms frequently (everynight on "Who Wants to Be a.....") but few of us, if any, have any concept of say, a "billion dollars." Indeed, it turns out that the measly "million dollars" is pale by comparison to a BILLION and certainly a pittance when compared to a TRILLION.

To better acquaint you to the significance of these numbers, let's take an imaginary trip to our CLOSEST STAR, the double star in the southern hemisphere skies we call ALPHA CENTAURI (and "Proxima Centauri").

When we look at Alpha through our telescopes or with the naked eye, we see its light from 4.3 years ago....it has taken that long to travel from its neighborhood to our eyes here on earth at a speed of 186,000 miles per second.

THAT translates to some 24 TRILLION miles or so (give or take a couple million/billion) to our closest star. Let's suppose that our "trip" to Alpha Centauri is made with the famous X-15 rocket plane, which travels at about 1.1 mile per second or roughly 1 MPS.

The first ONE MILLION miles would take a measly 11.5 DAYS; piece of cake by today's standards, it sometimes 11.5 days just to get a letter across the United States.

After 31.7 YEARS we would have finally passed the first BILLION MILE mark (only a "billion" left to go, right?). Now we realize this is not such a tasty cake after all, as we have aged significantly since we left Mother Earth!

We would pass through the Oort Comet Cloud - the farthest gravitational reach of the sun's Solar System at about 12 trillion miles in only about 380,000 YEARS from the day we started our journey.

To finally reach Alpha Centauri traveling at 1 mile per second, you would be sitting on board the X-15 NON-STOP (for coffee and bathroom breaks at every available B-P Station) for a total of 760,000 YEARS! that's right.....760,000 years!

Of course, once you get there, you'll need to get a quick snack, leave a business card, check your e-mail and gas up for the trip home....ANOTHER three-quarters of a million YEARS to get back home!

Do you think anybody will be waiting for you at the Airport when you return? Did you leave your automobile in "short-term" parking?

P. Clay Sherrod
Arkansas Sky Observatory
Conway / Petit Jean Mountain

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