Long Scale and Short Scale: How much is a billion? It depends where you live.
No person is a foreigner when you consider Earth your home. One might hope that all people on Earth probably have a lot in common with each other. We have divided ourselves up into two hundred or so nations, but we find ways to resolve our differences through our United Nations organization. We speak hundreds of different languages, but people rely on widely used languages such as English, French, Arabic, Spanish et cetera as common languages for international dialogue. Mathematics is clearly important to all people, so one might think that mathematics is surely universal common ground for all humanity, and for the most part it is, but when someone in Denmark for example uses the word billion, it means something very different in Hong Kong for example, because people around the world either use the Long Scale or the Short Scale or some other scale that is different from these two scales.
Seventy-four English-speaking nations and twenty-five Arabic-speaking nations are Short Scale users while twenty-seven other nations use a modified version of the Short Scale. Greece is in a category all its own.
Twenty Spanish-speaking nations and twenty-one French-speaking nations and eight Portuguese-speaking nations and five Dutch-speaking nations and twenty-eight other nations are Long Scale users.
If this is not confusing enough, Canada, Mauritius, Seychelles, Vanuatu, Namibia, South Africa and Puerto Rico use both scales. Eighteen countries have their own numbering systems and use neither short nor long scales.
How much is a billion? A billion could be one followed by nine zeros or it could be one followed by twelve zeros; it depends where you live.
How much is a trillion? A trillion could be one followed by twelve zeros or it could be one followed by eighteen zeros; it depends where you live.
How much is a quadrillion? A quadrillion could be one followed by fifteen zeros or it could be one followed by twenty-four zeros; it depends where you live.
Surely there must be a way of measuring that avoids the use of the words billion, trillion, quadrillion, quintillion, sextillion, septillion, octillion, nonillion, decillion, undecillion, duodecillion, tredecillion et cetera all the way up to centillion because we invite the potential for misunderstanding when we use these words that have different meanings in different places on Earth.
A mile is the longest imperial unit and an inch is the shortest imperial unit, so a billion miles or a billionth of an inch is clearly a problematic way to measure anything in an international context. I think it is a mistake to limit our usage of SI units to this tiny range. That is, I think it is a mistake for people to refuse to take advantage of SI units larger than a kilometer and smaller than a centimeter; clearly, those people have enslaved themselves into thinking in scientifically outdated imperial units.
The beauty of the International System of units or SI after its French initials is that one has the option to dispense with ever having to use any word for any number higher than thousand on the scale, which thankfully has only one definition everywhere on Earth.
Using the SI, one can measure everything from the width of a tiny neutrino at 1 ym (one yoctometer) to the diameter of the observable universe at 880 Ym (eight hundred eighty yottameters) without ever using words for numbers that have different values in different places on Earth.
Here are some other examples: Our galaxy is about one zettameter in diameter. The Rosetta Nebula is about 1.2 Em (one point two exameters) in diameter or 1 200 Pm (one thousand two hundred petameters). The average orbital distance of Saturn is about 1.4 Tm (one point four terameters). The average orbital distance of Earth is about 150 Gm (one hundred fifty gigameters). Earth circumference is about 40 Mm (forty megameters). The author of this blog is 181 cm tall (one hundred eighty-one centimeters).
Measuring is the path to knowledge and understanding, so pick the appropriate unit for what you measure. Let us blow the dust off those rarely used SI units and measure wisely so that any Earthling can understand us no matter where we live.
Do you really want to get involved? You can register as a member at http://MetricPioneer.com to interact with others who are enthusiastic about American metrication.
You can also take the Terran System Exam at http://metricpioneer.com/terran
Complete the Language of Mathematics – American Competency Survey: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/N97FXGP
Finally, you can challenge yourself with this Math Test: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/25LRWBD
Very enlightening information. Thank you, David!