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”.