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Big Numbers Count

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Even if you’re not a mathematician trading daily in numbers of all manner, you deal with them regularly. Ever since humans have had to send ships, trade goods, track natural events, they’ve played an important role in a variety of activities. But they tend to be manageable (even if counting can present a challenge). But what about big numbers? Huge numbers? The near-unfathomable ones? How can we wrap our heads around them?

Big Numbers and the Brain or: Ouch, My Head Hurts

Tim Chartier, an associate professor in the Mathematics and Computer Science at Davidson College, says there’s a point at which numbers become difficult for us to grasp.

“I, personally, consider a number is bigger than I really comprehend if I can double it and see it as the same,” Chartier said in an email, citing 10 trillion and 20 trillion as examples of numbers that offer no differentiation for him other than one being double the other. “But, 500 and 1000 are very different to me. With one I can buy a smartphone and the other a laptop.”

Click on an image below to see how big is big.






Everyday Big Numbers

So big numbers can seem meaningless, and yet they figure into our lives, sometimes even critically so.

For example, when we log in to our online bank account, encryption is key to keeping other people’s hands off our cash. One type, RSA encryption (so named for the three MIT mathematicians who devised it, Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman), is a system that involves a public encryption key and a private decryption key, both of which are necessary for access. The public key is derived by multiplying together two humungous prime numbers each of which is more than 100 digits long. Turns out that the product of those primes is so large, it’s near impossible to reverse-engineer it to determine what the two original primes that went into were. Those two primes help determine the private key, the other half needed for account access.

Another mind bogglingly huge number that touches everyday life (for many of us anyway) comes from Chartier, who has earned something of a reputation for his talents in “bracketology”—the scientifically grounded art of finding the basketball winners in what he calls March MATHness. Here’s one of the big numbers he trots out in this context: “9 quintillion is the number of possible brackets that can be created in one March Madness tournament. The number is huge. If I could produce 1 billion unique brackets every second, it would take 300 years to produce 9 quintillion brackets!” (Which is why Warren Buffett felt pretty darn safe offering up his billion dollar bracket challenge.)

And it’s that kind of translation into something more graspable that can help us scale mammoth numbers to a size we can more easily comprehend. And so, taking a page from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notebook, we’re going to put some gargantuan numbers “into a concrete shape, into an image, … [to] see and handle and carry home.” And so we present this infographic for your numeric pleasure.



Cool Cosmos at IPAC




National Wildlife Federation/E.O. Wilson



Cool Cosmos at IPAC




Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Episode 9, “The Lives of the Stars”



Endowment for Human Development

National Park Service

NASA Earth Observatory


Cool Cosmos at IPAC



HyperPhysics/Georgia State 

Infographic by Julie Rossman.


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