Tag Archives: big numbers

The tall, the short and the more than many

Some tribes are supposed to have a counting system which consists of the numerals one, two, three and many. This tends to make us chuckle, but I wonder if we do not at times deceive ourselves with the devices we have invented to count up to the sky and beyond. We can write huge numbers and even (with difficulty) pronounce them but can we think them ? I have been trying to work out how many apples or bottles of milk or people I can visualize at once and I think my answer is somewhere between seven and thirteen. So I can imagine 1300 dollars by thinking of 13 one-hundred dollar bills or 6500 euros by thinking of 13 five-hundred euro notes, but not really beyond that. Which makes the figures which I hear being thrown out by governments to shore up the financial system sound as real as ogres and angels. It is hard to maintain any idea of what really happens in the economy because the figures are so far beyond the boundaries of our mental eyesight. Perhaps we don’t admit it to ourselves but we also give up pretty quickly and translate large numbers into many, larger ones into more than many and even larger ones into shrugs and lifted eyebrows.
One way of bringing home the meaning of things is to change the unit we use to measure them with. In 1971, Jan Pen, a Dutch economist, found a way to represent differences of income in society. He asked us to imagine a parade of the whole of the British population. The parade would last one hour exactly and people would walk by in ascending order of height. The height of the people marching by would be determined by their income. We the spectators would have an average income and thus an average height. Read more…