The BP Spill Wouldn’t Fill the Superdome, But You Wouldn’t Want to Watch a Game There

The Associated Press, in its role as the Wire Service That Zigs™, has collected some comparative-volume figures to help news browsers understand how much oil has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. Some are alarming, but others seem comforting—testimony mostly to how lousy our intuitions about volume are, and to the limits of reasoning by analogy:

Viewing it through some lenses, it isn’t that huge. The Mississippi River pours as much water into the Gulf of Mexico in 38 seconds as the BP oil leak has done in two months.

Technically, AP copy desk, that second sentence says that the oil leak, like the Mississippi River, is pouring water into the gulf. Would that it were! Unfortunately, it is pouring oil. (Also, if you stood on the banks of the Lower Mississippi and counted to “thirty-eight Mississippi,” and then imagined that all the mile-wide water that had flowed past while you were counting had been oil—I’m not sure you’d feel comforted.)

The article also points out that “the amount of oil spilled so far could only fill the cavernous New Orleans Superdome about one-seventh of the way up.” And then you could back a whole lot of tanker trucks up to the Superdome and get rid of all the oil. Except the oil isn’t all inside the Superdome, after all. If you spread the oil out some more, by a crude calculation off the AP’s calculation, you could probably coat every NFL stadium, major-league baseball stadium, and NBA arena with a half-foot of it.

On the other hand, it could fill 15 Washington Monuments and two-thirds of the way up a 16th.

There’s the human bias toward being impressed by tall, skinny things at the expense of short, fat things . If 15 1/2 Washington Monuments only fill the Superdome one-seventh of the way, then you could actually fit 93 more Washington Monuments in there. But shouldn’t you clean up the oil first?