Ask most people how much a a Billion dollars is, and they have a concept in their head of 'more than a million', but in actual fact it is 1,000 times more, which is actually a really large and staggering number, considering how large a million already is. Try counting to 1,000 sometime, and it will give you a much improved concept of how much bigger a Billion is than a Million.
This issue of comprehending large numbers gets us into trouble, because we often end up making scenarios equivalent in our minds that really aren't. For example - 3,000 Americans dying in 9/11 was a terrible tragedy, but was it really that much more important than the 1,000,000 people that died in the genocide in Rwanda, where basically the whole country cut each other up with machetes, an event that the world pretty much ignored?
Geeks are the perfect people to deal with these issues, because they are much more used to dealing with large numbers. Where a normal person might be tempted to spend $100,000 to try and save a first-world person dying of self-induced lung cancer and diabetes from smoking and over-eating, Bill Gates does the math and works out that he can save people in Africa for just a few bucks each, and therefore that is a much more efficient way to spend his money.
So when it came to spend a huge amount of money, and build the worlds largest and most advanced machine, of course geeks were our only option. A week or so ago, the Large Hadron Collider was switched on, bringing to life an amazing machine that: was built by 10,000 of the worlds smartest people; must be kept colder than the outer reaches of space; can accelerate particles to 99.999999% the speed of light; has a diameter of 27kms; houses the worlds most powerful electromagnets; uses more power than most countries; and can essentially re-create the conditions that were present at the dawn of the universe.
Now - The LHC was deemed so expensive and complex that no one country could fund it or design it - so a consortium of 80 countries pulled together to try and find the money to answer the largest question of all - "where did we come from, and what are we made of" - and the total cost of the LHC? Around $10 Billion. Now - knowing that figure, and the fact that 80 countries pulled together to find that kind of money (which is actually an ENORMOUS sum), do you feel a bit more nervous that the USA is having to bail out it's financial institutions to the sum of SEVEN HUNDRED BILLION? I sure do - that's about $2,500 for every man, woman and child in the USA, and considering how many people I saw there that can't even afford a square meal, it makes me wonder if the problem won't take a bit more fixing than good 'ol boy Bush signing a cheque.
I think that the only way that that kind of money can be found is if the USA frantically starts printing money (as I believe it has already been doing to fund the 'war on terror'), the end result of which I suspect may be a permanent devaluation of the US currency. Are we witnessing the end of US world dominance? I suspect so, but we'll all be worse off, as the US has done a pretty good job of keeping the world an orderly place. In the future, with a USA that's falling apart, high oil prices, high food prices, Global Warming, and an environment that's falling apart every where you look, humanity will really need to start rolling up it's sleeves...