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The National Debt, the Size of the Universe and Other Really Big Numbers

Updated on May 19, 2013

You hear lots of talk about the national debt these days. According to U.S. National Debt Clock , the national debt is $16,005,940,626,383.68 as I type this in Sept. 2012. That number is far too messy, and people dispute the method of computation, so what the hell. Let's just call it $16 trillion.

The site claims that the national debt has increased at the rate of $3.88 billion per day since September 28, 2007. This is mere pocket change when you have 300 million people to soak it up. If you do the math, it comes out to around $12.93 per person, per day. Big deal. But after a year, your share is about $4,700. Yikes! And it'll likely happen again next year, and the year after, ad nauseum.

The national debt, a couple of trillion dollars ago
The national debt, a couple of trillion dollars ago | Source

My Debt, Your Debt, Our Debt

Each citizen's share of the national debt is about $51,000. That's more than the sticker price of a Chevrolet Volt, the electric car that the federal government has been pushing, selling fewer than 7,500 units in 2011 amidst reports of spontaneous combustion. The Los Angeles Times reported that the sticker price was $39,995, which is another way to say $40,000. A $7,500 rebate takes the cost down to around $32,500. Where's the rebate coming from? The federal government, adding to the national debt.

Hot Air reported in late 2011 that various government subsidies cost taxpayers about $250,000 for each Volt sold, which means the real cost to manufacture a Volt is almost $300,000. Now I feel better. My share of the national debt is only a sixth of a Volt's real cost.

I don't know about you, but I wouldn't feel good about floating $49,000 in personal debt (excluding a home or vehicle) and adding four or five grand to that figure every year. But the federal government does this for me.

Bankrate provides some interesting statistics on personal debt. About 40 percent of American families spend more than they earn. Some 60 percent of active credit card accounts are not paid off monthly. The average card debt among people with at least one card is about $9,200. A typical American family pays around $1,200 each year on credit card interest. No big deal. That's only a fourth of what the government is adding to the national debt on their behalf.

The average personal wealth of a 50-year-old American, including home equity, is less than $40,000—there's that Chevy Volt again. If this 50-year-old has $40,000 and his share of the national debt is $49,000, then he's underwater! And the government is pushing him deeper every year.

Your share of the national debt, if you load it with options
Your share of the national debt, if you load it with options | Source

Bigger than the National Debt

Some numbers are larger than the national debt. Really.

Take the universe. You want to see some big numbers? If the Big Bang theory is correct—this says that the universe that we know started with a really big explosion long ago—then the universe was formed about 13.7 billion years ago.

Okay, 13.7 billion isn't that much compared to the national debt. If years were dollars, we'd reach that number in less than four days.

Astronomers call a billion years a gigayear. Very cool. I'm surprised that politicians haven't picked up on this lingo. I mean, the national debt is only 15,000 gigadollars. What's to worry about?

Like the national debt, the universe is expanding, and its rate of expansion is increasing.

No one knows the size of the universe with certainty. Some scientists believe it's infinite, extending forever in all directions. Others think it's only about 150 billion light years across so far, although it continues to expand. A light year is the distance that light travels in a year. Light travels at around 186,000 miles per second, so a light year is about 6 trillion miles, and the universe is approximately 1 septillion miles wide. That's 1024, which is a 1 with 24 zeroes after it. You're going to need lots of recharge stations if you plan to drive your Chevy Volt across the universe.

If the universe is finite, what's at the edges? Does it just stop? Do you bounce off the edge if you reach it, or can you walk past it and leave the universe? The universe could be finite and wrap around so that it has no edges. This is true of Earth, for example.

Infinite and Really Infinite

If the universe is infinite, then how infinite is it? You do realize that some infinite numbers are greater than others. Math students may have seen the term “countably infinite”. Here's how it works. Say you count all the integers. You count 1, 2, 3, etc., and you never get to the end. That's a lot of numbers. In fact, it's an infinite number. But say you look at the numbers between 1 and 2. There's 1.5. And between 1.5 and 2, you have 1.75. Pick any two numbers, as close together as you like, and you can always pick another number between them. That's an infinite number, and it's clearly greater than the number of integers, which is also infinite. So, some infinite sets are larger than others.

The amazing thing about infinite numbers is that whether countable or not, they are all larger than the national debt. But don't underestimate the resourcefulness of politicians. They may yet find a way to create an infinite national debt, even if it's only countably infinite—at first.

M81 Galaxy: bigger than the national debt
M81 Galaxy: bigger than the national debt | Source

Just the parts of the universe that we can observe with the naked eye are incomprehensibly huge. If you've ever gazed at the night sky, you've probably seen the Big Dipper. This is formed by the seven brightest stars of the constellation Ursa Major. These stars range from 68 to 210 light years from Earth. If you are younger than 68, you are seeing the closest star in the Big Dipper as it appeared before you were born. If you observe that star tonight, you will be seeing it as it was when the Allies were planning the invasion of Normandy in 1944.

After the Sun, which is about 8 light minutes, or 93 million miles, from Earth, the closest star is Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years away, about 24.8 trillion miles. Already, we've found a number larger than the national debt. The center of our galaxy, the Milky Way, is 25,000 light years away. The next large galaxy is Andromeda, 2 million light years away. Space is really big.

On their Physics 110 webpage, California State University, Bakersfield provides some perspective on both the size of the universe and its age as they relate to our planet and solar system. Our solar system compares to the size of the universe as a bacterium compares to the surface of the Earth. Recorded human history relates to the age of the universe as 13 seconds relate to a year. The universe is incredibly big and old.

The Sun is one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, which is one of 100 billion galaxies. That means there are around 1022 stars in the universe. There are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches in the world.

Did I mention that the universe might have a slight curvature? Let's discuss that some other day. My head hurts.

March 2012 Update

General Motors will halt Volt production for five weeks, starting the week of March 19, 2012, idling 1,300 workers, according to egmCarTech. Volt inventory stood at about 6,300 units in February, enough to last five months.

President Obama suggested in early March that the $7,500 Volt rebate be increased to $10,000, according to The Daily Caller, which notes that the average income of families buying Volts is $170,000.

National Review Online reports that student loan debt of $870 billion now exceeds auto loan debt, which is $730 billion. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York says there were 37 million student loan borrowers in the third quarter of 2011. That's about $23,500 per borrower.

Related Hubs

Forward Contamination of Space: The Aliens May Be Us: We may find life in outer space someday and discover it originated on Earth. Forward contamination of space is very real, and can be as dangerous as bringing space microbes back to Earth.

Is There Extraterrestrial Life?: Scientists are starting to believe there must be extraterrestrial life forms, and some think they've visited Earth. Some believe they're benign and others that they should be avoided. Astronomers are discovering ever more planets; one of them is likely to host intelligent life.


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    • giocatore profile image

      giocatore 6 years ago

      Wow, now I have to figure out how many neurons there are across all humankind. Oh my. I touched on your question in another hub. I'm trying to write an infinite number of hubs, as that should provide ample income. Of course, I'll then pay infinite income tax to finance the national debt. Cheers and thanks.

    • Tonu1973 profile image

      Tonu1973 6 years ago from the outer reaches of reality

      Very interesting and humorous hub. There are estimated to be between 80 and 120 billion neurons in the human brain and you are obviously firing off quite a few of them. Question..If we assume there are 8 planets revolving around each of those stars than how many planets do you think are within a habitable zone? Thanks again and SHARING