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In case you haven't seen the news that's been lighting up the tech sector these days, Apple recently sued Samsung for multiple patent violations concerning Samsung's cell phones allegedly knocking off iPhone design and technology, and won, to the tune of $1 billion in fines.

There's a rumor going around the Internet that Samsung is planning to pay the fine in nickels, shipping, or so it's said, 30 trucks to Apple's headquarters stuffed full of small change.

Now, that sounds wildly implausible to me, on a number of levels. First, it seems like getting one's hands on a billion dollars' worth of nickels would be an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. Second, it seems to me that a billion dollars' worth of nickels would occupy one hell of a lot more than 30 trucks.

One of the things I often complain to zaiah about is something I call 'number illiteracy'. As soon as anyone starts talking about numbers higher than a thousand or so, people's eyes glaze over and that little drop of drool forms on the corners of their lips. A million, a hundred million, a billion...these all seem like synonyms for "really big" to a lot of folks. Hence folks complaining about the money spent on the Mars Curiosity rover without realizing that we Americans spend about the same amount on Halloween candy every October...but I digress.

Just for giggles, I did a rough, back-of-the-envelope estimate of what it would take to pay a billion dollar fine in nickels.

A billion dollars in nickels is 20 billion nickels, or roughly 64 nickels for every man, woman, and child in the entire United States. That is almost the entire number of nickels in circulation; the total number of nickels that exists is estimated by the Treasury Department to be around 25 billion or so.

A nickel weighs a sixth of an ounce, so 20 billion nickels weighs in at 208,333,333 pounds, or 104,167 tons, give or take a few hundred pounds. In the United States, a tractor trailer rig traveling on public roads is permitted to weigh no more than 80,000 pounds (gross) by law. A typical tractor trailer rig weighs in at roughly 20,000 pounds, leaving no more than 60,000 pounds for cargo. (From a quick Google search, it seems most commercial truckers won't haul more than 50,000 pounds, but since I know fuck-all about shipping I'll be generous and go with the 60,000 pound limit.)

At 60,000 pounds per truck, a billion dollars in nickels would require 3,473 trucks. Since a semi trailer is 53 feet long (not including the cab), the trailers, lined up end to end with no cabs, would make a row roughly 35 miles long.

I did a quick Web search to see what the shipping cost would be. From Samsung's US headquarters to Cupertino, home of Apple, the cheapest rate I could find on my quick-and-dirty search was $503 per half ton, or $104,792,002 for the whole shebang. That's about $105 million in shipping charges, though I bet a job this size might qualify for a bulk discount.

So now you know.

Edited to add: When zaiah and I first talked about the problem of sending a billion dollars in nickels, we were driving and didn't have easy access to Google, so we made an even rougher back-of-the-envelope calculation, using guesswork, imagination, and the XKCD "if I can throw it, it weighs about a pound" rule. I can throw four rolls of nickels, so I guessed that four rolls would be about a pound.

The first approximation of an answer we came up with, which we figured might be within half an order of magnitude or so of the right answer, was 4,000 trucks. Later, with Google and a calculator and a lot of legwork, we came up with what you see above. So, go us!


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 5th, 2012 02:28 pm (UTC)
I think the word you're looking for is "innumeracy" - the number-based version of illiteracy.
Sep. 5th, 2012 06:20 pm (UTC)
Innumeracy is an awesome word, thank you!
Sep. 5th, 2012 06:21 pm (UTC)
I also like "number numbness."
Sep. 5th, 2012 04:17 pm (UTC)
This is, of course, the same reason so many people have such a hard time thinking about evolution--our brains aren't really equipped to think about the truly vast amounts of time involved. (Nor is there any reason they should be, after all.)
Sep. 5th, 2012 06:23 pm (UTC)
Your rough answer was within 1.15-fold of the careful one, or only 0.06 orders of magnitude away. Nice shootin', Tex!
Sep. 5th, 2012 07:48 pm (UTC)
Snopes already did the math, they came up with slightly different numbers:

Same basic objections, tho.
Sep. 5th, 2012 08:22 pm (UTC)
Interesting. They're assuming each truck would haul 80,000 pounds (40 tons) of nickels, but the 80,000 pound weight limit on a commercial truck is gross, not net. Whoever did the math didn't account for the fact that the truck itself weighs rather a lot. :)
Sep. 6th, 2012 06:02 am (UTC)
Could be. Also might be that, as they're Canadians, they botched the metric conversion.
Sep. 5th, 2012 07:55 pm (UTC)
I tried this trick some years ago. I lost a bet to an Irishman that he couldn't stop drinking for six weeks. I thought it would be the easiest £25 I'd ever make.

However, he managed it and I was so unhappy, I drew out the money in 5p coins. Undeterred, he paid for his first post-bet drink with them.

Edited at 2012-09-05 07:55 pm (UTC)
Sep. 6th, 2012 12:10 am (UTC)
Hrair – Any number greater than four. It is translated to thousand and, less commonly, five. Hrair, combined with elil and the suffix -rah, forms the name Elil-Hrair-Rah, literally, "the prince with a thousand enemies", which is shortened to El-ahrairah, the rabbits' mythological champion and messiah.
Sep. 6th, 2012 02:15 am (UTC)
Watership Down never fails to delight and impress.Of course, I've used the phrase "silflay hraka!" conversationally, so I might be showing a bit of bias there.
Sep. 6th, 2012 02:12 am (UTC)
This is a fantastic example of why I read your blog.
Sep. 6th, 2012 04:21 am (UTC)
How long did you spend throwing rolls of nickels to use that basis for estimation?
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )