The law of large numbers? An IgNobel statute

sweets in jars in a sweet shop

How many penny sweets can you buy with a billion dollars?

For a financial journalist, one of the major challenges of the past couple of years has been to convey the scale of the numbers we are dealing with on a daily basis. What is a billion dollars? How many penny sweets can you buy with it? Pints of milk? And we know a trillion is bigger, but how much bigger?

An innovative and practical attempt to solve this problem has been recognised with one of the greatest international accolades, an IgNobel prize.

Much more interesting than the Nobel prizes, which go to people you’ve never heard of for things you’re not interested in, the IgNobel prizes are awarded “for achievements that first make people LAUGH, then make them THINK”.

The judging committee decided that Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank, had performed a great service to mathematics by “giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers — from very small to very big — by having his bank print bank notes with denominations ranging from one cent ($.01) to one hundred trillion dollars ($100,000,000,000,000).”

The Economics award was also well-deserved: it went to “the directors, executives, and auditors of four Icelandic banks — Kaupthing Bank, Landsbanki, Glitnir Bank, and Central Bank of Iceland — for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa — and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy”.

About the blog

FTfm is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

FTfm's specialist writing team offer their insights into the global fund management industry.

About the authors

Pauline Skypala has been editor of FTfm for four years having previously been deputy personal finance editor. She joined the FT in 1999 and has been writing on savings and investment issues throughout her career.

Steve Johnson, FTfm deputy editor, has been a journalist for 17 years, 10 of which have been with the FT.

Sophia Grene, reporter on FTfm, has been a financial journalist in print and online for 12 years.

Ruth Sullivan has worked as a financial/business journalist and foreign correspondent and for the past 10 years has been at the FT.