Power Players

Neil deGrasse Tyson used this experiment to put in perspective just how rich Bill Gates really is 

People are fascinated by wealth, but do they really understand it?

For instance, publications like Forbes and Bloomberg publish running lists of the world's richest people — multi-billionaires like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos ($131 billion net worth, according to Bloomberg), Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates ($94 billion) and investor Warren Buffett ($87 billion).

But, while many of us are endlessly intrigued by how these titans of industry managed to amass their eye-popping wealth, it can be difficult for the average person to fully appreciate just how much money that really is.

Fortunately, renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has a handy way of explaining the massive gap between the average person's net worth and that of a person like Bill Gates.

In order to illustrate just how wealthy Gates is compared to the average person, deGrasse Tyson tells CNBC Make It that he once did an experiment to determine how much found money would need to be laying on the street for someone as wealthy as Gates to take the time to bend over and pick it up.

Tyson uses himself finding a penny as an example: "Since I have a stable job and a car, the penny — I'm not bending down to pick up the penny," deGrasse Tyson, who is director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York and the host of "StarTalk" on National Geographic Channel tells CNBC Make It. "Let somebody else get that."

"Same with a nickel. [A] dime? If I'm not in a hurry, I'm picking up the dime; in a hurry, I'm walking past.

"A quarter I'm picking up every time."

So what about Gates?

When deGrasse Tyson did the experiment in 2011, Gates' net worth was around $50 billion, deGrasse Tyson tells CNBC Make It. The astrophysicist did a calculation that took into account his own personal net worth compared to Gates' considerably larger assets, and he then used that ratio to determine Gates' version of the quarter that deGrasse Tyson would be willing to pick up.

The answer: Gates would not pick up anything less than $45,000, the scientist tells CNBC Make It. For some added perspective, the median household income in the U.S. was just over $61,000 last year, so $45,000 would be nearly three-quarters of the median income for an American household.

"So, if there's a wad of cash, $45,000, in the street, [Gates might say] 'No, I'm too busy, let someone else pick that up!'" deGrasse Tyson says while chuckling.

"That's how much wealth $50 billion is, because the $45,000 is not even worth bending over to pick up."

Now, of course, Gates' net worth is nearly double what it was seven years ago, so it's likely that it would take closer to six figures to get the former Microsoft CEO to stop walking.

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