Morris: Numbers Everyone Should Know

September 10, 2018

by Leo Morris

I realized today that I would be sitting down to compose my 51st weekly column for The Indiana Policy Review, just one masterpiece away from that happy anniversary when I will have completed a whole year’s worth of work.

So, since I’m sick to death of the bitter political divide that has deteriorated into outright tribalism in this country, I decided to make this piece a happily neutral one. Therefore, following (in descending order) are “Numbers Everyone Should Know but Most People Probably Don’t.”

Q. What’s the total wealth of the world?

A. Depends on the definition of “wealth.” If we’re talking hard currency, things like cash, money in bank accounts, etc., about $40 trillion. If we throw in things like derivatives, cryptocurrencies, real estate and unmined minerals, we’re into the hundreds of trillions and probably even into the quadrillions. If we stick with “money an individual can command,” so we can fairly compare people like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos with the $15-an-hour hamburger flipper in Seattle, the most recent reliable estimate by Credit Suisse was $280 trillion in late 2017, which was a healthy 6 percent jump from the 2016 total. So, let’s assume about the same growth for this year and say: a little north of $290 trillion.

There are many ways to look at this number. My way, when I’m feeling pessimistic, is that the total U.S. federal debt is now approaching 10 percent of the world’s total wealth.

Q: How many cells are there in the average human body?

A: According to scientists’ best estimation, about 37.2 trillion. But they acknowledge that such a calculation is extremely tricky, since different metrics (going by volume or weight, for example) would give widely varying results. So, let’s just say between 35 and 40 trillion.

I started thinking about this number when I read a Tweet from someone calling himself a proud immigrant who was 50 percent (let’s just say) Vulcan (so I won’t offend anybody). I inferred that he was not so proud of the 50 percent that was something else, and I sympathized at the agony he must feel when contemplating a single cell in his body. Is that individual cell 50 percent Vulcan, or is there a 50 percent chance it is something else and therefore not welcome? How wearying it would be to repeat this self-doubt trillions of times.

Q. How many people have ever lived?

A. According to estimates by the Population Reference Bureau, about 108 billion, which is a great number to throw at people who say things like, “The people alive today are more than all those who lived before them” or some such nonsense.

Of course, such a calculation is as much art as science, since no demographic data exist for 99 percent of human history. And of the people who were here before air conditioning, Netflix and Big Macs, can it be said that they truly lived?

Q. How many stars are visible in the night sky?

A. Of the roughly septillion stars (whew) in the observable universe, only about 5,000. But since the Earth gets in the way (hemispheres, you know), cut that number in half to about 2,500. Throw in the effects of light pollution on the planet, and it’s down to 1,000 or fewer in most populated areas. “Starry, Starry Night” — ha! This number will make a wonderful metaphor in your seminar speeches about not trusting everything you see, searching for the hidden truth, what we can learn by accepting we’re in an insignificant corner of the universe, etc., etc., etc. You’re welcome.

Q. How many countries are there in the world?

A. An easy one – 194 or 195, depending on how you feel about Taiwan. Since I have nothing but contempt for all the China-appeasing weenies out there, including the United States, I’m going to go with 195. You don’t like that attitude, file a complaint with the United Nations.

Q, How many planets are there in the solar system?

A. I’m saying this for the last time – nine. Just because you stop calling something a planet doesn’t mean it isn’t one. You might be interested to know that in order to demote Pluto, a drastic redefinition of “planet” was pushed through — including a requirement that it has “cleared out” its neighborhood, which should disqualify even Earth given all our nearby asteroids. And only 424 astronomers (out of some 10,000 around the globe) were allowed to vote. Typical progressive authoritarian thuggery, I say.

Q. How many sexes are there?

A. Just two, OK? There are men, and there are women. Anything else is just in your head. And it is “sex.” If you use “gender” for anything but grammar, then you’re one of those people who think sociology trumps everything, and I just can’t deal with you anymore. Go find your safe space and leave me alone.

I apologize. I feel better now. Let’s dial it back a bit.

Q. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

A. According to the American Forest Foundation, a New York state wildlife expert, Richard Thomas, found that a woodchuck could (and does) chuck about 35 cubic feet of dirt in the course of digging a burrow. He reasoned that if a woodchuck could chuck wood, he would chuck an amount equivalent to the weight of the dirt, or 700 pounds.

And, finally, a little Eastern mysticism to pull you out of your boring Western sensibilities:

Q. How many Taoist philosophers does it take to change a light bulb?

A. None. It is impossible for a light bulb to change its essential nature.

I just realized I have left out one important number.

Q. How many right-of-center columnists does it take to ramble on about specious nonsense instead of addressing the real issues?

A. Well, you know it, of course.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at


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