We all have a bit of Walter Mitty in us. It’s human nature, irresistible. And nothing brings out the dreamer in us more than playing the lottery, be it scratch-off games with their promise of a $2 haul or participating like massed lemmings in one of the multi-state, multi-gazillion-dollar mega-lotteries. All the proceeds go to educating our young’uns, yeah, we know. That’s not what’s important to us.
I’m no different. How many times have I stood at the Stop & Shop customer service counter, slapped down my dollar (two if I was feeling especially lucky) and walked away dreaming, the winning ticket heavy in my pocket. Oh, the dreams! I’ll pay off my debts! All my extended family’s debts too! College costs? Not an issue anymore. Mortgage? Paid off with a laugh.
I was careful with my newfound millions. I don’t really need a 20,000 square foot house, even if I could buy it for cash. Nah, a nice, 4,000 square foot one will do. Cars? A Lexus will do nicely, thank you. No real need for a Maserati, I don’t want to be ostentatious. OK, that still leaves about $199 million. Let’s see…
I was generous with my largesse. Everyone who had ever been nice to me would get a big fat check, with enough added to cover taxes. I was a benevolent man, yessir. One of millions who were spending their imaginary winnings at that very moment, each with his or her winning ticket safely tucked away.
I do think a lot. When I’m not thinking about my millions, I like to think of math. Out loud I say that thinking of math has been proven to stave off dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and rickets in the aging population, of which I am a card-carrying member. The sad fact is that I simply am a geek. So I did what geeks do best. I decided to see what the real odds were that the steaming-hot lottery ticket in my pocket would actually bring me fortune and new friends.
I picked a popular game, the New Jersey Mega Millions lottery that people flock to like gnats to a lantern in summer. (Why no one seems to play unless the pot tops $200 million is beyond me. I guess winning a mere $20 million is just not worth standing in line for nowadays.) Last I checked, the odds of winning that baby were 175,711,536 to one. Cool.
But a number with two commas in it loses meaning, it has no grounding in reality. “How big are those odds?” “I dunno. Pretty big, I guess.” Nothing in my sphere of influence is that large; not the number of pennies in the empty soda cans I keep in my closet, not the number of times I’ve changed diapers or carted off the physical evidence of my puppies’ walks, both fairly substantial amounts.
Time to put this into some physical perspective. Let’s pretend that the number One is a square inch. A happy little square, one inch on each side. So what do 175,711,536 square inches look like? Geek time: the square root of that many square inches is 13,256. That means a very large square measuring 13,256 inches on each side will hold all those millions of happy little squares. Stay with me, class.
Big numbers make my vision blur, so let’s work on this. 13,256 inches is 368 yards; let’s just make that a round 360 between us friends. How long is that? Well, a football field is 120 yards long counting both end zones, so we’re talking three football fields laid end to end. Ah.
A football field is 53 yards wide (I looked that up), so the aforementioned 13,256 inches is about seven football fields wide. Do the quick math and you’ll see where I’m going with this: 175,711,536 square inches more than cover twenty one football fields laid out in a 7×3 pattern.
Those of you who have not had the pleasure of being in close proximity to an actual football field may want another perspective. Those fields cover 27 acres. Really.
Not a farmer? OK, if you live in a squished New Jersey development where the amount of land you get to call your own and pay taxes on is about a quarter of an acre (I’m including sidewalks and streets to keep it real), we’re talking a development of 108 homes.
Picture a residential development of 108 houses. A square inch is roughly the size of a USPS Forever postage stamp. Now picture a rather large sheet of stamps covering every square inch of that development. Literally.
If someone were to tell you that one of those postage stamps covering 27 acres represented a jackpot of $200 million and all you had to do was fork over a buck and guess which one it was or choose a stamp at random, how lucky would you suddenly feel?
After going through those mathematical gyrations, my brain hurt and I forever lost any interest in dreaming of how I would divvy up my after-tax lump-sum lottery distribution. Dream shot. Game over.
I told my little story on the day of the last Big Drawing to one of my colleagues, a sweet lady, gentle and pleasant as they come, a lesson in class. She looked at me with a sweet smile and kindly proffered her opinion of my wet-blanket analysis. Only she didn’t use the word “fudge.”