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What Numbers Do You Hold?


Gardening season is HERE!!!! Credit: Anna O'Brien

In school occasionally we had to memorize stuff and it was dumb. Equations for math, monologues for English -- I'm talking rote memorization, not learning something so well you know it by heart. There's a difference. Although I abhor to a certain degree our current Google culture—the lazy dismissiveness of "well, just Google it"; the general understanding that you actually won't Google it; the interruption of a conversation when someone actually does Google it and then the tear in discourse when they inevitably get sucked into an online distraction—I do appreciate that information is just a swipe away. However, I also think there's something to carrying around some factoids in our brains and just what factoids we carry can hint to other things about us.


For example, for some reason, both of my parents know exactly how many feet are in a mile. If you ask them, in unison they will robotically reply: 5280. (And yes, I just had to Google that.) Apparently, this was something in their school curriculum that was burned into their craniums—and maybe most craniums of the baby boomer generation—and thus remains in there decades since.

For me, the first few lines of the famous monologue in Shakespeare’s Richard III are forever burned into me:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

I can also tell you that Mt. Everest is just above 29,000 feet (but does this really count, as I can’t tell you the exact elevation?). And that the Earth came into being roughly 4.54 billion years ago.


I bring this all up because I am reading a fascinating book right now: Space Oddities: The Mysterious Anomalies Challenging our Understanding of the Universe by Harry Cliff. I’m only one chapter in and already: mind blown. This is seriously interesting stuff and written for non-physicists. However, I think it’s going to take me awhile to get through. I’ve already read the first chapter twice and think I need to revisit it again. Keep in mind I’m a slow learner, but still. This ain’t no sleepy time read.


And this gets me back to the numbers we keep in our heads. Cliff explains the universe itself is 13.7 billion years old. I didn’t know we had an age for it (he explains how we got this number, too). 13.7 billion. Wow. This seems to me another nice number to keep in my head. Just makes things feel a little bit more grounded.


So what numbers do you keep up there? And maybe more importantly: why?

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