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Jack Smith

Zero Visibility at Depicting Big Numbers

May 18, 1988|Jack Smith

I am always pleased when I learn that The Times is being used in the classroom; what better tool to develop literacy in children and familiarize them with the world beyond their neighborhoods?

So I am delighted to hear from Jean Lancaster of Big Bear Lake that the pupils in Caroline Green's Big Bear Middle School have found an entirely new use for the newspaper in their learning process.

Lancaster sends me a clipping from Big Bear Life & The Grizzly, the local newspaper, that tells exactly how Green has put The Times to use in her classroom.

A problem arose when the children were discussing the extermination of 6 million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust. They simply had no concept of what 6 million was; nor, for that matter, even 1 million. So Green hit upon the idea of having the pupils tear a newspaper into 1 million 1-inch-square pieces. That would certainly give them an idea of what 1 million really was.

It soon became obvious that the local newspaper would probably not be big enough to tear into 1 million pieces. "The Grizzly is for reading," is how Green put it, "The Times for tearing up."

The pupils set to the task. At first they tore only one sheet at a time, but they soon discovered they could tear two, then 10, thus speeding up the process. The 12 pupils in the class worked two hours a day in groups of three, two tearing and one tabulating.

At the end of four days, when they were only one-quarter finished, they had filled one 30-gallon plastic trash bag with 1-inch squares.

Green said the project not only helped her pupils with their math, but also increased their international awareness and their desire to read more. I do not see how tearing up a newspaper could increase one's international awareness and desire to read more, but I suppose that anything that engages the interest of schoolchildren is a good idea.

I also have trouble with 1 million. My most satisfactory way of imagining 1 million is to think that it would take 1 million people to fill the Coliseum 10 times. If you want to conceive of the number of Jews the Nazis destroyed, you have to fill the Coliseum 60 times.

Meanwhile, Paul W. Kimball Jr. of Santa Monica writes to ask if I can tell him what a trillion is, noting that the government's new budget rings out at $1.1 trillion.

He said he looked it up in Webster's and was astonished to find that in the United States and France a trillion is 1 followed by 12 zeros; but in Great Britain and Germany it is 1 followed by 18 zeros. He wonders how that can be.

I have no idea. I can not conceive of 1 trillion of anything, whether it has 12 zeros or 18 zeros. I can't even figure out how many times you would have to fill the Coliseum to have 1 trillion.

George H. Matter of Fullerton, who is evidently a mathematician, says he is becoming accustomed to the figure 1 trillion, but he was astounded by the word googol , which appeared in a Times crossword puzzle.

He said he looked up googol in the dictionary and found that it is 10 to the hundredth power (1 followed by 100 zeros). According to Matter's calculations, which he attaches, if the Earth were covered by sand to a depth of 6 feet, that would be only 10 to the 25th power grains (of .010 inches each). Even the dimension of the known universe (assumed as 200 million light years), which he calculates at only 10 to the 30th power miles, is small compared to a googol. "Perhaps, Jack," he concludes, "you can find a need for the word googol, since I can't unless I live long enough for Congress to spend it."

Googol , according to Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure and Preposterous Words, means 10 to the 100th power, and was coined by mathematician Edward Kasner's 9-year-old nephew; which proves that children can conceive of numbers that the rest of us can't.

All I know about a googol is that you would have to tear up a lot of copies of The Times to get one.

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