Friday, February 26, 2010

Fear of Exponents

Have you ever met someone who simply can’t comprehend the difference between ten-to-the-sixth versus ten-to-the-ninth (aka millions or billions)? I have encountered many “expona-phobes” over the years. Being in the computer industry in a previous life, I recall one employee, a seasoned software developer mind you, kept getting tripped up with megabytes and gigabytes – “The hard disk is 100 megabytes,” he exclaim. I’d reply, “Really? That sounds pretty small, like something from the early 90s. Do you mean gigabytes?” He’d invariable respond defensively “Oh, megabytes, gigabytes, kilobytes, always confuse me!” Ouch, that’s sad.

I catch these mistakes all the time in the press. Take for example the time when the L.A. Times reported the losses for 1,600 investors suing Bernard E. Madoff as being $4.69 million. The correct figure, of course, was $4.69 billion. Budgets are frequently reported incorrectly, like California spending $59.7 million on education in 2008-2009. Again, it was really $59.7 billion.

These mistakes, shockingly, also happen in the science press. Take for example a recent news item that came out in the much respected Science News magazine about the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The article described the supermassive black hole in the Galactic center as being 4 billion solar masses! Wow, I didn’t know we had a quasar in our midst. The real value is 4 million solar masses, and even an experienced science journalist and presumably an editor let that one get past them.

I think one way to fight “exponent-itis” is to think in terms of exponents rather than long streams of zeros. Some people’s eyes glaze over when they see a lot of zeros. It would be harder to confuse 1,000,000 with 1,000,000,000 if you focus on the power of ten – the 6 and the 9.

So let’s all practice some diligence when speaking about very large numbers (like the U.S. deficit). It could save you a heck of a lot of money the next time you submit a bid for a new home.

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