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Millions And Billions And Billiards And Milliards

A frame from "How big is a billion?"

I know about millions, billions and trillions, but milliards and billiards? Never heard of those.

Apparently, 40 years ago, the British had different names for big numbers, different from ours. A "milliard" was what we now call a "billion," or a thousand million. What they called a "billion" was a 1 with 12 zeros after it (which we call a "trillion"). So they counted differently.

Who knew? I thought everybody counted like us, but no, they didn't, and even today, in much of the world big numbers have different names.

But Britain came over to our side in 1974. The government switched — officially. "The UK's been on the slide for a long while, right? " says one of the grumpy mathematicians in this delightfully geeky video. These guys, part of a web series called Numberphile, don't likeAmerica's names for large numbers. They want their old names back.

Too, Too "Hollywood"

"The old system is more logical," says one. TheU.S.words for billion, million, quadrillion lack mathematical precision, they're too "Hollywood." They lack rigor.

Normally, I try not to think about numbers. They scare me. Always, have, since second grade, but these guys care so much, and are so orderly, and so easy to understand, and they make their argument delightfully persuasive, I've got to say, they make a pretty good case.

I'm warming up to the idea of milliards.

See if they persuade you.

This video is one of a series — all of them about numbers and most of them totally easy to follow — called Numberphile.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Krulwich works on radio, podcasts, video, the blogosphere. He has been called "the most inventive network reporter in television" by TV Guide.
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