Do Numbers Go On Forever?Date: 04/08/2002 at 11:32:17 From: Christopher Retzlaff Subject: Large numbers and infinity Do numbers go on forever, or do they stop? What is the largest number that has a name? P.S. from Mom: What's the best way to explain infinity to a kindergartener?! Date: 04/08/2002 at 12:47:25 From: Doctor Peterson Subject: Re: Large numbers and infinity Hi, Christopher and Mom. This is something very special about numbers, which is worth thinking about: numbers are just ideas, not anything you can see or touch, so there is nothing to stop them from going on forever. We have to use our imaginations and picture what it would be like if we found a "largest number." Suppose I came up to you and said, "The largest number is umpteen quillion." (I made that up!) You would just laugh at me and say, "No it's not! Umpteen quillion and one is bigger!" Do you see how you could make a fool of me if I tried to give you an answer like that? Now, it's a little trickier to ask, "What is the largest number _that has a name_?" You could find the largest number name in a dictionary; that is probably "centillion." (Try looking it up.) But mathematicians are not satisfied with mere lists of words. Mathematics instead works with _rules_. For example, assume that centillion is the biggest number in your dictionary. This would not mean that "one centillion one" is not a named number; it's just not a separate word that needs a definition. We have rules for naming numbers that allow us to use a small list of names and put them together to make names for more numbers than a dictionary could hold. And using those rules, we can make numbers like "a centillion centillion," which is a whole lot larger. Then, people can make up words that aren't in dictionaries at all. Back in the 1930's, a man named Edward Kasner, a mathematician, asked his eight-year-old nephew Milton Sirotta to think of a name to give to a large number. Mr. Kasner then said that a "googol" was the number you would write as a one followed by 100 zeroes. Sounds pretty big, doesn't it? But it's not even as large as the centillion I mentioned. However, they then used that new name to give a name to a number that is much, much larger, the "googolplex." This is written as a one followed by a googol of zeroes. Now, a googol is so large that there aren't that many particles in the whole universe; so even if you wrote a zero on every particle in the universe, you couldn't even _write out_ a googolplex, much less count it! So probably "googolplex" is the answer to your second question (though other even larger numbers have been given special names like "Graham's Number"); it is in many dictionaries. But even kids have named larger numbers; what would you think a "googolplexplex" might be? Now, if we can imagine and talk about numbers that are so big no one could ever even write them out, you can see why I said there is nothing that can ever stop numbers from getting larger. Our imaginations are bigger than the whole universe! One last comment. The word "infinity" doesn't represent an actual number that is bigger than all the others; "infinite" just means "without end," and is a way of describing something that never comes to an end. There are infinitely many numbers, because there is no last number. And that's really all it means. If you have not already seen it, our FAQ may be of interest: Large Numbers and Infinity http://mathforum.org/dr.math/faq/faq.large.numbers.html - Doctor Peterson, The Math Forum http://mathforum.org/dr.math/ |
Search the Dr. Math Library: |
[Privacy Policy] [Terms of Use]
Ask Dr. Math^{TM}
© 1994- The Math Forum at NCTM. All rights reserved.
http://mathforum.org/dr.math/