For most people, our experiences in everyday life are with using lower numbers like one, two, or ten. We not only comprehend what it means to buy five apples, but we can also visualize exactly what that might look like. In other words, these are numbers that fall within a range that is very intuitive for most humans.

Extrapolate that a little higher and we can still comprehend the numbers, but we start to lose that intuition.

Are there 1,500 or 2,000 people at a music venue? It’s hard to know for sure, but we do at least have a basic comprehension of the sizes of those numbers. Every day, we do math with numbers in the thousands – a paycheck, a credit card bill, or paying rent.

Millions, billions, trillions

This is where things start to get dodgy. Once numbers get beyond the millions, we don’t really have any intuition, tactile familiarity, or comprehension of what they mean.

For example:

  • One million seconds = 12 days
  • One billion seconds = 32 years
  • One trillion seconds = 32,000 years

Going back in time a trillion seconds would place you well before written history, the building of the pyramids, and 10,000 years before the first cave wall paintings in France.

Our monkey brains don’t really know what to do with these giant abstractions, and so it helps to think about them in different ways, especially visually.

The Visual Interpretation

Looking at visual representations of these numbers will help to put them in perspective.

Below is a series of fantastic 3d graphics produced by that help to do this for the $20 trillion in U.S. Federal Government debt. It starts with a $100 bill, and goes from there. Enjoy!

1. Here is a single $100 bill.

A single $100 bill

2. Here is $10,000, or 100 of those same bills in a stack.

$10,000 or 100 of those bills

3. $1 million, or equal to 92 years of work for the average human on Earth.

$1 million visualized in $100 bills

4. $100 million on a pallet. The couch is worth a cool $46.7 million, too.

$100 million visualized in $100 bills

5. $1 Billion – getting bigger…

$1 billion visualized in $100 bills

6. $1 trillion, looking at it from a front angle.

$1 trillion visualized in $100 bills

7. Here’s a better view of the $1 trillion with the White House.

$1 trillion visualized in $100 bills

8. Finally, here’s $20+ trillion of U.S. government debt.

U.S. Debt

For more on putting the U.S. debt in perspective, here’s a video showing Trump’s $20 trillion problem, as well as visualizing the debt from a more 2d perspective.

Article by Jeff Desjardins, Visual Capitalist