Staff

# There are a zillion different names for big numbers

As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, large numbers like googols “don’t count things, but instead count the ways things can happen.”

My husband found an interesting fact to read aloud on nearly every page of Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” “Guess how many probable planets there are in the universe?” he’d ask at breakfast. Ten billion trillion! Molecules in a cubic centimeter of air? Forty-five billion billion! By the time he got to Page 303 and “How many bacteria live in the human body?” I had an answer ready: “87 squillion bazillion.” It turns out I was close – it’s 100 quadrillion!

Numbers this large are hard to grasp, and referring to them by name doesn’t help. Arabic numerals are clearer – no one has to wonder whether you mean 1012 or 1018 when you say trillion.

To googologists, number lovers who strive to define and name ever-larger numbers, utility is not the point, and even Bryson’s 100 quadrillion is small change. Googology comes from googol, the most famous, and smallest, of the really big numbers.

A googol is a 1 followed by 100 zeros (or 10100 ). It was given its whimsical name in 1937 by mathematician Edward Kasner’s young nephew, and became famous when an internet search engine, wanting to suggest that it could process a huge amount of data, named itself Google. This moniker is rather aspirational, as the number of atoms in the entire universe is estimated to be only 1080 , much less than a googol.

A (big) step up from there is googolplex, which is 10googol , or 1 with a googol of zeros. This is the last widely accepted name for a really big number. People have tried to get googolplexian (10googolplex ) and googolduplex (same thing) to catch on, but there doesn’t seem to be enough occasion to use them. As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, such large numbers “don’t count things, but instead count the ways things can happen.” The example he uses is that there are more than a googol different ways to play a game of chess.

Those of us who aren’t googologists can fall back on “indefinite hyperbolic numerals” such as bazillion, zillion, gazillion, jillion, and squillion. Linguistic anthropologist Stephen Chrisomalis has found that these terms originated in the United States in the late 19th to early 20th century, when words for large numbers “served as an index of education level and social status.” As numeracy increased, so did opportunities to poke gentle fun at the desire to be so precise. With their comic vagueness, words like bazillion convey the difficulty of trying to grasp big numbers.

The biggest number ever named appears to be Rayo’s number, after the MIT philosopher who defined it. If you want to know more about that, you’ll have to look it up. All I can say is that it’s bigger than a gazillion squillion.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for \$15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

https://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/In-a-Word/2020/0604/There-are-a-zillion-different-names-for-big-numbers
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe

## Subscription expired

Your subscription to The Christian Science Monitor has expired. You can renew your subscription or continue to use the site without a subscription.

This message will appear once per week unless you renew or log out.

## Session expired

Your session to The Christian Science Monitor has expired. We logged you out.