Visualising large numbers

How much is a million posterFrom distances between stars to the mass of the cells in the body, science is full of both vary large and very small numbers.

To help deal with such large and small numbers, scientists often use scientific notation. So, for example, the mass of a typical human cell (which is around 0.000000001 grams) would be written as 1 × 10-9 g. This notation helps make such numbers more readable. Unfortunately, I think it also makes it harder to appreciate just how big or small these numbers really are.

To regain an appreciation of the size of these numbers, I like to try and visualise them. To help me do this, I made a poster containing one million dots (click on the link to open up a pdf version of it).

one million dots poster

You will have to zoom in a bit to be able to make out each individual dot!

If we use the example of the human cell (which weighs 0.000000001 grams), one million human cells (or one poster worth of human cells) would still only weigh 0.001 grams. Indeed, it would take 1000 million cells (or 1000 posters) to equal 1 gram. Just imagine that for a second… if each dot on the poster represented 1 human cell, we would need 1000 posters to equal the weight of a single paper clip. That I think really brings into perspective just how small a human cell is.

So, when you next see a very large or small number, try to put that number into perspective by remembering just how many dots are on this poster.

Feel free to use this poster for you own ends. If you want to edit the poster at all, you can open a PowerPoint version of it here.

Note: Just for fun, I made one of the dots on this poster red! See if you can find it.