On Translating Really Big Numbers and Giving Them a Human Context

I am pretty big into data visualization right now: how can communicators help people understand data with charts or pictures. It’s all the rage. But communicators still need to think about how to contextualize really big numbers with words that evoke images. In disaster reporting you often hear things like, “The wildfires burned an area larger than the state of Rhode Island!” or “The oil spill could fill 1000 olympic swimming pools.” (I’m not suggesting that either of these are very good examples, they are basically stand-ins for saying “really big” because the writer or speaker is completely convinced of the innumeracy of his audience.

Today I encountered an article about a topic that interests me, food waste. I didn’t get too far into it before my mind (and fingers) were off on a tangent. Here is the second sentence:

To give you an idea of how much 3,000 tons is, that’s the weight of the new warship USS Little Rock, set to be commissioned later this year.

Do you know how big a warship is? I don’t. Do you want to click through just to find out? I don’t.  Using an analogy to help the reader understand a quantifiable measure only really helps when the analogous thing is something your audience knows about. Otherwise it just means, “really big”. So here are a few better ways to quantify 3,000 tons:

  • 1 ton is 2,000 pounds, so 3,000 tons is 6 Million pounds. We all know how much we weigh, and have a sense of a pound of food, we often buy food by weight.
  • If it were all steaks, you could serve 12 million 80z New York Strips.
  • 3,000 tons weighs just a bit more than 13 Statues of Liberty! (the city that tosses 3000 tons of food daily is NY). But even this isn’t great because we are mixing a volumetric example (people know how “big” the statue of liberty is) with a weight example.
  • 3000 tons is about the same weight as 1100 Cadillac Escalades (update: A line of Escalades 3.5 miles long!) This has a similar problem as the statue of liberty example.
  • 3000 tons is equivalent to the max takeoff weight of almost 5 Boeing 787 Dreamliners, or perhaps even better: 3000 tons weighs as much as 15 empty 747-400 airplanes, or about 10 Airbus A-380s, the largest commercial airplane flying today.
  • 3000 tons of food waste would cover a football field nearly two feet high. You might ask, am I counting the end zones or not, I’m not counting the endzones. In 3 months, that food waste would cover a football field to a depth of 180 feet, or the height of the top row of  nosebleed seats in some NFL stadiums.

I think any of the examples I’ve provided give the reader a better sense of how much 3,000 tons of food waste is.

So here is the lesson, again, when using analogies to contextualize quantities or other measures, be sure you are creating analogies that will resonate with you audience, and add clarity, not create more questions or confusion.


While lying awake in the middle of the night, I wondered, “How did that guy (Alexander Starritt, the article’s author) come up with the warship analogy in the first place? Did he just google ‘3000 tons’?” Yes. Yes he did. When you google ‘3000 tons’ the first thing that comes up (after google’s unit translator) is the article Starritt linked to. There is a big problem here though. As far as I can tell, when a ship’s size is described in “tons” the unit is actually a “long ton” or 2240 pounds, not the 2000 pounds of an American ton. You can learn more about tons on wikipedia. So, not only was Starritt’s analogy a bad one, it was also numerically incorrect.