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To Our Readers

BY JOHN FLANAGAN

Sunday, July 15, 2001


How much is
1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000?

A one with 27 zeros after it is equal to 10 raised to the 27th power. The name for this "Big Number" is 1 octillion.

The length of the universe from end to end is supposedly 15 octillion inches. In centimeters, that would be about 38.1 octillion -- or 38 octillion 100 septillion centimeters.

Really Big Numbers, like dinosaurs, are intrinsically fascinating, especially to kids -- I suppose for the same basic reason: They are really, really big.

Hundreds, thousands, millions and billions are big numbers, too, but these days they are increasingly easy to comprehend. After all, 6.5 billion is merely the annual budget of the state of Hawaii in dollars.

People are always trying to find inventive ways to make big numbers comprehensible.

For example, when the Air Force launched its huge C-5A transport planes, public affairs officers described the weight of its fuel load in terms of Volkswagens. Since old VW beetles weighed about 1,500 pounds, this strange choice of unit made the math easy at least.

Even a trillion is comprehensible. For example, 5.74 trillion cigarettes were produced and, I assume, smoked in 1997. All the letters in all the books in the Library of Congress add up to about 10 trillion and there are some 50 trillion cells in the average human body -- in Shaquille O'Neal, maybe 98 trillion. However, as the zeros stretch out across the page, it gets harder and harder to find things big enough to count.

Scientists tell us the Earth's atmosphere weighs about one quintillion pounds -- that's a one followed by 18 zeros -- and our sun weighs in at 4.4 nonillion (30 zeros) pounds.

Go up to 60 zeros -- that's a novemdecillion -- and you can measure the volume of the galaxy in cubic inches, but to measure the volume of the universe it takes 84 zeros, which is one septenvigintillion cubic inches, give or take a sexvigintillion.

Numbers all have Latin-based names until you get to the biggest Big Number, the googol. In America, that's 10 raised to the 100th power.

In England, they count Big Numbers differently. For example, an octillion in the British system has 48 zeros, not just a piddling 27.

Go figure.





John Flanagan is editor and publisher of the Star-Bulletin.
To reach him call 529-4748, fax to 529-4750, send
e-mail to publisher@starbulletin.com or write to
500 Ala Moana Blvd., Suite 7-500, Honolulu, Hawaii 96813.



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