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The Scrivener: Old Bones And New Figures

...My pals and I used to talk about billion, trillion, quadrillion and even quintillion. One of our favourite statistics was that our planet is 93 million miles away from the sun...

Brian Barratt is awed by some very big numbers.

(EDITOR'S APOLOGY: Due to an oversight there has been an innordinate delay in running this column. In the meantime the numbers cited by Brian have probably grown so big that they can no longer fit into Open Writing).

For more of Brian's sustaining columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/
And do visit his invigorating Web site
www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

In the 1980s, as a book editor and publisher, I interviewed 115 children in upper Primary schools about their interests. Their hobbies included indoor and outdoor sports, horse-riding, reading, model-making, writing, drawing, music and collecting. The 16 collectors were variously interested in stamps, stickers, coins, buttons, badges and sea-shells. One boy collected 'anything that other people don't want', such as watches and watch cases. Another collected 'old bones from the bush and the beach'.

In the 1940s, our family collection of foreign coins and bank notes included some items which intrigued me German bank notes for up to 50 million marks. At that time, I didn't know about inflation and what happened in the 1920s and 30s. However, those notes were probably my introduction to large numbers.

Unpleasant tangible evidence of inflation and large numbers has returned. Somewhere in the family's collection, there are bank notes from Zimbabwe. Their face values start at 10 billion dollars and soar to 100 trillion dollars.

Back in boyhood days, it was quite a thrill to discover that there were even larger numbers than a million. My pals and I used to talk about billion, trillion, quadrillion and even quintillion. One of our favourite statistics was that our planet is 93 million miles away from the sun. I think population statistics also interested us, because I recall being quite proud of the fact that our home town had more than 20,000 people in it. We were told that London was the largest city in the world. Its population was then 8 million people but New York had already exceeded 10 million.

Some of the large numbers we read about nowadays relate to things that didn't exist during my boyhood or even when I was interviewing kids in schools.

We read that Google handles 2 billion searches each day and its income is nearly 30 billion dollars per year.

It is said that about 400 million people use a Microsoft Windows operating system on their computers.

200 million people actively use the social networking program Facebook. Because of the way it works, comparative figures for Twitter can't be established but it's said that up 200 million people visit it each month.

WordPress, a computer software program for creating websites, has already been used for that purpose by over 18 million people. Nearly 300 million people view those websites each month.

When you read some of these figures from the electronic era, of course, you start to wonder how much information about you is stored on computers round the world, and how it is used. But that's another story.

A cyberspace figure which has recently come to my notice is the number of times a video on YouTube, of the teenage pop singer Justin Bieber, has been viewed. When I checked it a few weeks ago it was 476,504,704. Today, it is 497,348,876. That's getting on for half a billion.

Assuming that most of that vast number of viewers are children, I wonder how many of them know how far the earth is from the sun and are interested in indoor and outdoor sports, horse-riding, reading, model-making, writing, drawing or collecting? Especially collecting old bones from the bush or the beach.

Copyright Brian Barratt 2011

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