What Is The Biggest Number?

Nov 22, 2017

What's the biggest number? Who was the first mathematician? Why is seven a lucky number? Why is fifth grade math so hard? We're tackling something new: questions about math! With us to offer some answers and some mind-blowing concepts is author Joseph Mazur.

Some of Mazur's books include Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence and What's Luck Got to Do with It: The History, Mathematics, and Psychology of the Gambler's Illusion.

What is the biggest number? - Eliot, 3, White River Junction, Vt. and Peter, 6, Falls Church, Va.

First, think of a cup of sand. How many grains of sand are in a cup? "We could do the math by estimating the size of a grain, but my guess without doing the math is somewhere between three and five million, in a cup of sand," Mazur said. "Five million is a very big number but how about the number of grains in a sandbox? Or a beach? Or the Sahara Desert? Or on Earth? What if we add the sands of Mars? What if we multiplied the grains of sand on earth by the grains of sand on Mars?"

"That number is so huge, we don't have the words to describe it," he said. "Mentally, we can imagine multiplication, and we can imagine keeping going, even though we're not actually counting any sand particles. Even if we got tired of multiplying, we could always drop one more grain of sand, or imagine that we could."

The answer is there is no biggest number. We might run out of names for those very big numbers, but that doesn't mean we've reached the end. "If you think of mathematics taking place in the mind, we can keep thinking of more and more numbers," Mazur said.  "There's no stopping because whenever you get to the number you think is biggest, just add one to it and you get another number that's bigger."

Listen to the full episode for answers to who invented mathematics? Why is seven a lucky number? Why is fifth grade math so hard?

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