Wednesday, April 1, 2015

More Astronomical Numbers in the News

More big numbers used to confuse.

More Astronomical Numbers in the News

A few days ago I wrote this post about an Inquirer op-ed piece that cited a shockingly large number – more than a billion dollars - to describe the annual economic effects of a penny increase in the price of gasoline. That translates to the somewhat less scary figure of a couple of dollars per driver.

Today a letter in the New York Times topped this with an even more astronomical number to describe how much Americans drive – 2.9 trillion miles a year! If we drive just a little more we can get up to a light year a year. We’re in the ballpark. But already we’re collectively driving the distance to Pluto more than 500 times over. (I can’t be too precise here because the distance to Pluto varies depending on where it is in its orbit).

If we assume there are, say, 200 million drivers in America, give or take, then they’re each driving, what, about 14,000 miles a year? That doesn’t quite have the same shock value, but might be a more useful number if we decided we all wanted to cut down on our driving.

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at Reach Planet of the at

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