Sizing up the world with rice

When these performers study population densities and statistics, they use rice – but it's not for eating.

Sometimes it can take a pile of rice to truly understand your place in the world.

Using rice to represent people, performers from a British theater company have figured out a way to make sense of population statistics.

They pile, measure, sort, and repile it as a way to compare the density of people in various parts of the world. They also use it to track population changes.

In February, the group, Stan's Cafe, showcased its work at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams. Performers sifted through more than 15 tons of rice – or about 250 million individual grains – using it to represent numbers large and small.

Scales, scoops, and bowls transferred it from 100-pound bags (each containing about 1 million grains or "people") to large sheets of paper on the floor, where it was piled up.

Some of the piles were massive, including one that represented the entire population of Brazil. (It contained more than 182 million grains of rice, one per person.) Another mound represented the approximately 25 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, the center for people seeking to enter the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

This rice represents a person

"Different statistics have different meanings," said Alison Carney of the theater company. "We can access numbers on a computer, but not everyone knows what [the numbers] mean. The piles of rice give kids a sense of their place in the world – where they fit in."

Kids were given a grain of rice at the entrance to the exhibit. The significance of each child's grain became clear as visitors observed a six-foot pile of rice in the center of the 10,000-square-foot room. It represented all 300 million people who live in the United States.

"It's definitely my favorite pile here because it's the biggest," said John Hayer, a fourth-grader who was visiting the exhibition from Williamstown, Maine. "I can't believe there are so many people in the US."

His younger brothers, Ignatius and Xavier, couldn't believe the pile weighed an estimated 20,000 pounds, or about nine tons, according to performers. That's roughly the weight of six cars!

The Hayer siblings are in good company, said performer Heather Burton. Most kids don't realize how big the world is.

Last summer, the population of the world reached 6.5 billion, according to the United Nations. Yet people live on just 30 percent of the earth's surface area. That's because most of the planet is covered with water. The rice can help put numbers such as these into context, said the company's codirector, Craig Stephens.

How many US fast-food fans ?

One of his favorites, naturally, was a pile representing the population of his native country, England – 50 million people. It was compared with a pile representing the number of people who eat at fast-food restaurants every day in the US. Both piles were roughly the same.

Another pairing compared the number of Americans living in gated communities with the number of people being held in US prisons – again, both piles were about the same size.

Another popular comparison was the number of people who've walked on the moon (12) with the "original" moonwalker – Michael Jackson.

This comparison – and one that played on the name of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – were meant to make people smile, Mr. Stephens says. "It helps to make sense of it all, gain insight into other people, and make it easier to understand numbers."

But the rice had another effect, too. By the time members of the Hayer family had completed their rounds at the exhibit, they all had worked up an appetite – and were headed off to lunch. But there was no word about whether they, like scores of other Americans that day, ended up eating at a fast-food restaurant. Or maybe they had rice for dinner.

To find out where 'Of All the People in the World' is playing next, visit www.stanscafe.co.uk/ofallthepeople/index.html.

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