What Does a Quadrillion Sour Patch Kids Look Like?

There are depressing moments. There are dark places.
And then there’s being a 31-year-old man carefully stacking Sour Patch Kids on the kitchen counter in a silent apartment at 2:00am.
To understand how I ended up here, let’s back up a couple hours to midnight, when I was staring at my computer at a half-completed post that I hated.
The thing about bad Wait But Why posts is they don’t like to reveal themselves right away—they like to disguise themselves as good posts until I work on them for a long time, and then they’re suddenly like, “Oh btw I’m a very bad post.” And I find myself sitting there in despair, realizing I need to scrap all the work and start something different.
So that’s what I did at midnight last night and decided instead to do a post I’ve been wanting to do for a long time—visually depicting massive numbers, to help get my (and your) head around words like “quadrillion.”
The obvious means to do this was to use cubes like those wooden cubic centimeter and cubic decimeter cubes that were in our 3rd grade classrooms, but it was late at night and in my mixture of despair and delirium, I ended up making a fairly inexplicable and weird decision to use Sour Patch Kids as my unit of measurement instead. I don’t understand it any better than you do, but it turned into me heading to 7-Eleven at 1:00am to stare at this wall for like 70 seconds:
And somehow, there were no Sour Patch Kids.

I wandered around the store for awhile, and finally I came across this, which I looked at for a long time before determining it really wasn’t what I wanted.

I moved on and headed to a nearby convenience store. They also had no normal Sour Patch Kids, just some irritating “eXtreme” version. I wasn’t pleased, but it was late, I was aging, and they seemed close enough, so I bought ten bags.

I can’t imagine what the cashier thought as I made this 1:30am purchase, other than “this guy is about to have one of the most depressing solo parties of all time.”

I finally made it back home, broke open the bags, and started measuring.

3cm x 1cm x .5cm.

Next I lined up 10. Note the unappealing, radioactive colors Cadbury has chosen for its Sour Patch Kids eXtreme brand:

Next I laid 50 out:

And added another layer of 50 on top to make 100:
And in a night fraught with moments of self-loathing, carefully placing 50 eXtreme Sour Patch Kids on top of another 50 eXtreme Sour Patch Kids, alone at 2am, was the low point. Moving on—
Mercifully, I was able to copy and paste for all further building. The next step was to make a stack of ten of my 100-structure above to make 1,000:
That box is 10cm x 10cm x 15cm, so 1 million Sour Patch Kids is a 1m x 1m x 1.5m box:
1,000 of those boxes yields a 10m x 10m x 15m box that holds 1 billion Sour Patch Kids. Just a bit lower than the top of the Green Monster:
1,000 of those and we get to a trillion Sour Patch Kids, forming a 100m x 100m x 150m box that kills a bunch of squirrels in Central Park:
This helps illustrate just how huge a number a trillion is. A trillion is important because it’s the largest number that comes up in day-to-day life. We come across a trillion mainly when it comes to the government and money, and it’s such a large number, a stack of a trillion tightly-packed Sour Patch Kids would cover a football field and be as high as a 30-story building.
Now we enter the realm of numbers that are normally impossible to conceptualize. Luckily, we have my idiotic Sour Patch Kids method to help.
Taking 1,000 of the football stadium-size trillion box above and arranging them in a 10 x 10 x 10 box with dimensions 1km x 1km x 1.5km, we now have 1 quadrillion Sour Patch Kids, covering most of Downtown Manhattan. A quadrillion is a thousand trillion, or a million billion, and written out, it’s 1,000,000,000,000,000.
For reference, I put the Empire State Building and the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, next to the box.
If you’re wondering, experts say that there are somewhere between one and ten quadrillion ants on Earth.
The next step is a quintillion.  At their highest cruising altitude, commercial flights fly just above the top of this 10km x 10km x 15km box, which covers most of West LA:
Want to know how small an atom is? According to Physlink.com, there are 1.2 quintillion atoms in a grain of salt. So think about this massive airplane-height stack of tightly-packed Sour Patch Kids above. There are more than that many atoms in one grain of salt. Even more shocking is that NPR says that the number of grains of sand in the world is roughly 7.5 quintillion, only about seven times greater than the number of atoms number in a grain of salt.

Further, 1.7 quintillion represents the number of Sour Patch Kids you’d need to blanket the entire surface of the Earth with them. I depicted 1.7 quintillion below—so if you spread this box out into one layer, it would completely cover every inch of the planet:

1,000 quintillion boxes gets us to 1 sextillion, or a billion of those trillion boxes we saw sitting in Central Park above. 1 sextillion Sour Patch Kids makes a 100km x 100km x 150km stack that covers Switzerland. Note the airplane depicting the highest commercial airplane altitude:
1,000 sextillion makes 1 septillion, and a septillion Sour Patch Kids (1,000km x 1,000km x 1,500km) covers most of India and stretches deep into space, past the international space station:
Any recollection of Avogadro’s Number from Chemistry class? It’s the number of hydrogen molecules in a gram of hydrogen, and the number of atoms in a mole. The number is 6.022e23, or .6 septillion, which is 60% of the box above. Avogadro was not attractive.
1,000 septillion is 1 octillion, and at this point we move beyond all relevant reference. An octillion Sour Patch Kids is about as big as the Earth:
1,000 Earth-size octillion boxes equals one nonillion, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 Sour Patch Kids. It stretches about half the distance between the Earth and the moon (384,400 km), which are both drawn to scale:
I am quivering to keep going. I need to know how big the next one (decillion) looks in comparison to the sun and how big the one after that looks in relation to the whole solar system and how many more illions until we’re bigger than the galaxy. But I’m gathering my strength and stopping. Because this is a post about big numbers, not about space and distances, and believe me, there will be a thorough post about space and distances some other time, since I’ve been seriously dating astronomy since I was three.
P.S. Sour Patch Kids are low quality. Nothing will expose something for being made in a factory in the cheapest possible way like opening ten packages of them and looking at a bunch of them for awhile.
P.P.S. I ate no fewer than 30 throughout the night even though I was increasingly appalled by them as I made my 100 structure.
P.P.P.S Sorry for the erratic posting schedule lately. We’re going to settle in at one post a week, on Tuesdays.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00294104220241925036 Liam

    Awesome! Next step would be to research how many Sour Patch Kids are sold annualy and see the size of the SPK block they could made each year. And what if every single SPK ever made were cubed, how big would that cube be?

    By the way, do you think there are more ants or tree leaves in the world?

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00180713924226076964 Salar Salahshoor

      I was waiting for this part at the end. :(

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05800827098291898066 Bob Larson

    Put a little weird music behind it and you will have the 1960’s “Powers of 10″ video! :-)

    Also, I’d like to see if you can substantiate the 7.5 quintrillion grains of sand stat. A cube of 7.5 quintrillion grains of sand would be MUCH smaller than the cube on LA. And I have a hard time believing that all of the sand in the beaches, the deserts, etc would fill just that cube. Keep NPR on their toes!

    • Ilya R

      Thanks to Bob Larson’s brilliant insight we have discovered that grains of sand are significantly smaller than Sour Patch Kids. News at 11.

  • Anonymous

    If I had to choose one blog from the whole Internet to marry, this would be it. Good work. It is an official day-brightener.

  • Anonymous

    I am glad Cadbury still hss a good name in the UK, but Kraft are trying their hardest to make us move to Nestlé.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03484064521988756293 Hannah

    Great, now I want some sour patch kids. They’re not even that good anymore!

  • Anonymous

    Now get some sleep!

  • Anonymous

    you would like Grahams Number (watch on Numberphiles YouTube Channel)

  • Anonymous

    Part of this post reminded me of Maddox’s article on “extreme” marketing: http://www.thebestpageintheuniverse.net/c.cgi?u=xtreme_bullshit

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09440523646411242375 nick weech

    Well! Where to start! Its a very good analogy to try to help us get some handle on all these nebulous numbers flying round. The debt crisis, this newest “shutdown” size of “atoms” – well done. In UK, we have Jelly Babies and suchlike, which are of comparable quality. Great idea to post it on YT with suitable soundbacking

  • Anonymous

    This is wonderful! Thank you! Keep going!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07293023484504926610 Unknown

    Hey–but wait! In space, wouldn’t the SPKs compress all together? or burst?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04624503058819968929 Jay Cross

    I’m guessing that somewhere between one sextillion and one septillion, you would run out of either Carbon or Hydrogen atoms, presuming that you were making them all on Earth out of atoms already here.

  • Anonymous

    Dude: Stop. You’re freaking me out.

  • Jake

    “And in a night fraught with moments of self-loathing, carefully placing 50 eXtreme Sour Patch Kids on top of another 50 eXtreme Sour Patch Kids, alone at 2am, was the low point.”

    I love you!!!

  • Anonymous

    Charming!! What I am wondering at the moment is how many functioning neurons it will take to open the Federal Government??

  • Anonymous

    Oh my God, your posts actually stimulate my brain. Numbers make me think, dimensions make me smile. I’m a closet astronomer wanna-be, and I rarely hear anyone else say they dig stars and space too! I found your blog recently and am so glad I did. Any chance you’re single? I’m sure you’re never been asked THAT on here before! Bye for now.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03814038867587901739 François C.

    A question of an unsuspected gravity!

  • Anonymous

    yeah. i kind of love you. this blog is rad.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05917590272428335520 ArmyBee

    Love your articles. Bookmarked the page and visit regularly :)

  • http://petramartin.com/ petramartin.com

    The sextillion SPKs squished the part of Germany I grew up in. I was raised in both the US and Germany by an American father and a German mother and had trouble figuring out which country to call home. I went to Germany for a year in my late twenties to determine my nationality once and for all. I realized that I was an American because Germans laugh at completely different things. Americans write blog posts like this one and shop at Archie McPhee’s for bacon air fresheners, librarian action figures, and handerpants.

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14039306872053242798 Samuel Zamora

      Handerpants??!!!!!

      No fucking way!!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07500024711541096567 OMFGITSROHIT

    I feel like a sour patch kid. I see your constant need to shrink yourself and feel like a particle of dust floating in space. That, combined with your schadenfreude desire to pit someone against the reality of their own insignificance. Oh well, we all get distracted eventually, don’t we? Great blog. Keep the posts coming, even if every post isn’t as informative/groundbreaking as the other. They’re all equally amusing.

    Where’s the sequel to why procrastinators procrastinate? I’ve refreshed this page a few times in the last twelve hours.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03854061151500622859 Halle Bose

    A challenge.

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  • Anonymous

    I got confused, and was disappointed (not majorly) not to see any cabbage patch kids. Does this date me?

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