Taking Stock: Absurdly Large Numbers

R B Swenson

Any reasonable fact can be obscured by picking units of measure which virtually no one can grasp. Example: The length of a football field is (exactly) 914.4 Giga-Ångstroms. That's 914 Billion Ångstroms! The calculations:

100 yards x 36 inches/yard x 2.54 cm/inch x 1,000,000 microns/m x 10,000 Ångstroms/micron / 100 cm/meter = 914,400,000,000 Ångstroms

(According to myth, the yard was defined to be the distance between Henry I's nose and his thumb.)

One credible estimate of the ultimate amount of conventional (pumpable) oil on the earth is 1,750 Gb (billion barrels). What does that mean?

Please explain the significance of two trillion barrels of oil.

1,750 Gb, the estimate of all the conventional oil that there ever was or ever will be, is less than the amount of sunlight that hits the earth in one 24 hour day.

1,750 G-barrels x 5,800,000 BTU/barrel = 10.15 x 1018 BTUs, which is less than ...
445 BTUs/hr x 24 hrs x 49,240,000 mi² x 5,280² ft²/mi² = 14.7 x 1018 BTUs

Some people say that "solar" is a diffuse, insignificant source of energy. How long would humanity survive if we had only oil to heat the earth?!

1,750 Gb of oil is equal to 67 cubic miles. The (conventional) oil already consumed globally, plus all the oil yet to be consumed, could be fit into a cube slightly over 4 miles on a side!

1,750 G-barrels x 42 gal/barrel / (7.48 gal/ft³ x 5,280³ ft³/mi³) = 66.8 mi³ = (4.06 mi)³

One cubic mile = 26.2 billion barrels
one cubic kilometer = 6.28 billion barrels

If spread over the entire surface of the earth -- land and oceans combined -- 1,750 Gb of oil would constitute a layer 21.5 mils thick -- about the equivalent of a spark-plug gap!

67 mi³ x 5,280 ft/mi x 12 in/ft / 197,000,000 mi² = 0.0215 in = 21.5 mils

On the other hand, the USA population consumes its entire weight in oil every week!

17,000,000 barrels/day x 42 gal/barrel x 7.5 lbs/gal x 7 days/week / 250,000,000 persons = 150 lbs/week/person

revised 2000 August 7

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