Billion Dollar Meme

Do you remember this piece of shoddy math from when the Powerball made it to more than a billion dollars back in early 2016?

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The creator suggested that instead of only giving the winnings of the lottery to the winners of the lottery, we should divide it evenly to everyone in the country.  If everyone in the U.S. received 4.33 million dollars, poverty in this country certainly would be solved!

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As many memes pointed out, anyone with a calculator can tell you that that $1,300,000,000 divided evenly for 300,000,000 people is $4.33 and not $4,333,333.  The difference isn’t chump change.  So how could the original creator have been off by a factor of a million?  

The “Philipe Andolini” behind this quote remains shrouded in mystery, with some claiming that he doesn’t even exist.  However, some sleuthing digs up a Facebook page for one Philipe Andolini, who appears to be originally from Haiti.  He now lives in New York City, and so he could even be friends with the meme’s creator.  This origin explains at least part of his famous math mistake: Haitians (and many other countries) use billion to refer to something different than what Americans mean by billion.  

We can trace this difference between a billion in Haiti and a billion in America through a quick diversion into the history of numbers.  The western world didn’t have a word to describe numbers larger than 999,999 until the 13th century, when a Greek monk, Maximus Planudes, coined the word million.  We didn’t have the word billion until 14th-century French mathematician Jehan Adam wrote about bymillions and trimillions.  But he didn’t quite mean it as we Americans understand.  By the word bymillion, Adam meant a million millions (i.e. 1,000,000,000,000), and by the word trimillion, a million bymillions (i.e.1,000,000,000,000,000,000).  The use of bymillion and trimillion with these definitions spread throughout Europe and their colonies.   It wasn’t until the 17th century when some countries started using the term billion to mean a thousand millions (i.e. 1,000,000,000) and a trillion to mean a thousand billions (i.e. 1,000,000,000,000), for reasons that are not entirely clear.  I personally choose to believe it came about as a way for the American colonies to say, “F U, UK!” but there’s no evidence to support this hypothesis.

Today these two scales go by two different names, the short scale and the long scale.  In the short scale (what we in the USA use), names change every time we hit a thousand of something.  An American would say that a thousand millions is a billion, a thousand billions is a trillion, a thousand trillions is a quadrillion, and so on.  In the long scale (what Haiti uses), names change every time we hit a million of something.  A Haitian would say that a million millions is a billion, a million billions is a trillion, and a million trillions is a quadrillion.  He would not say that a thousand millions is a billion, instead he would say that it’s simply a thousand million.  The following table compares the words that an American and a Haitian would use to describe these numbers.

Number Short Scale Standard Name

(What an American would call it)

Long Scale Names

(What a Haitian would call it)

Standard Alternative
1,000,000 Million Million
1,000,000,000 Billion Thousand Million Milliard
1,000,000,000,000 Trillion Billion
1,000,000,000,000,000 Quadrillion Thousand Billion Billiard
1,000,000,000,000,000,000 Quintillion Trillion
1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Sextillion Thousand Trillion Trilliard
1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Septillion Quadrillion

short-and-long-scales

The users of short scale tend to be from English, Arabic or Slavic language speakers.  The users of the long scale are either from Continental Europe or their former colonies. (Modified from Wikipedia)    

As is clear from the map above, Haiti is far from the only country that uses the long scale, and which scale a country uses tends to depend on their official language.  Because of this cross-language confusion, the United States government has created guidance for describing numbers larger than 999,999,999.  In its latest Guide for the Use of the International System of Units (SI), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recommends that “they [the words billion, trillion, etc.] be avoided entirely.”  

Had the states that managed the Powerball taken NIST’s advice, maybe Philipe Andolini wouldn’t have looked like such a fool with his math.  But even if he was confused about the short and long scales, that only partially excuses him.  That particular mistake would have meant that we would all have received only $4,333 – which is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but still far short of the $4.33 million he promised.

What none of this explains is why the original billion dollar meme took off on social media.  Americans don’t use the long scale, so they should have been able to catch that Philipe’s math was terribly inaccurate.  Fortunately, much of the profits from state lotteries (like the Powerball) go to K-12 education.  From the looks of it, our math instruction could use all the help it can get.

Thoughts?

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