What is the largest number you can think of? The ancient Greeks, who on the whole were pretty clever chaps, constructed a numbering system which had a myriad myriad as its largest descriptor of quantity. A myriad was ten thousand and so ten thousand ten thousands or a hundred million to you and I was quite enough to be going on with.
As Homo sapiens became increasingly aware of the immensity of the universe in which he was just the teeniest speck and as computing power allowed him to perform even more abstruse calculations at the click or two of a button, the search was on for descriptors of even bigger numbers. And so we have millions, billions and trillions. With numbers greater than a thousand million, there is the opportunity for confusion because some countries – continental Europe and Spanish and French-speaking countries – use the long scale where the next new term is a million times greater than the previous. However, the Americans, and the Brits since 1974, use the short scale where every term greater than a million is a thousand times greater than the previous. A French billion is considerably bigger than a British one. Confusing, eh?
Although these terms may have been sufficient to describe most numbers that we encounter, they were not enough for theoretical mathematicians. The American mathematician, Edward Kasner, conceived of a number which consisted of 1 and a hundred zeroes. He was searching for a name for it and during a walk with his nephew, Milton Sirotta, in the New Jersey Palisades, the nine-year old suggested the term googol. The youngster was not finished there. He conceived of another number, still finite, which consisted of a 1 and as many zeroes as you could write before you got tired. This he called a googolplex.
In 1940 Kasner co-authored a book with James Newman called Mathematics and the Imagination in which he introduced the terms googol and googolplex to the unsuspecting world. By that time the googolplex had changed from its very imprecise definition – after all, some people tired more quickly than others – to 10 to the power of googol or in decimal notation a 1 followed by a googol of zeroes. For a person to write a googolplex down it would take longer than the accepted age of the universe and a bloody big piece of paper.
Although as a symbol of quantity they have very limited application, the terms have made their mark on modern life. Larry Page and Sergey Brin named their company which was developing a search engine for the world wide web after a misspelling of googol – yes, Google – and their headquarters in California was called Googolplex.
And then there was the coughing major. In more innocent times the nation was enthralled by the odious Chris Tarrant and his show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire – they seem long and distant times. The major, Charles Ingram, was one of the few contestants to win the top prize of a million smackers. His m.o was to repeat the multiple options slowly as if he was pondering his options but the allegations, which surfaced after the show, was that he had an accomplice in the audience who would cough when he mentioned the correct answer. Ingram and his accomplices were charged with fraud and received suspended sentences and hefty fines. Ingram was stripped of his army rank, although they all protested their innocence.
And the million pound prize? “A number one followed by a hundred zeroes is known as what? As any fule kno, it is a googol.