September 27: Googol

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otdotd160927Ten Thousand Sexdecillion. It’s not just the name of the some huge monster army from a future episode of Game of Thrones, it’s one way to describe the number 10100. And although the reason you might know it comes from a site that officially went live 18 years ago today, the name “Googol” was first thought up in 1920, by a 9-year-old kid.

The mathematician Edward Kasner was looking for a number to describe something incredibly large, but not infinite. There’s nothing special about 10 to the hundredth power for mathematicians; it’s just a nice round big number. It’s supposedly the number of years we have left before the heat death of the universe, it’s the number of atoms that are estimated to exist, it’s a decent yardstick for the biggest practical numbers that most people (even most astrophysicists) will ever really need to use.

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Milton Sirotta, Krasner’s 9-year-old nephew, came up with the word googol when asked for a nonsense word. It’s stuck ever since, especially among casual math nerds like yr host. Actual mathematical types might go with the abovementioned, or “ten duotrigintillion” or the oddly alluring “ten sexdecilliard,” but when Sergey Brin and Larry Page were looking for a name for their new search engine to indicate that you could find a near-infinite amount of information through their website, they chose a more-standardized version of Milton Sirotta’s nonsense word.

edward-krasner-1907

Edward Krasner, 1907. He was the first Jewish person to become a faculty member in the sciences at Columbia University. And I like the moustache.

And now, of course, the compound in Mountain View, California, where their empire has taken root, shares its name with the number that is 10 to the power of a googol, or 10^10^100, or a Googolplex. That wasn’t the original definition, though. According to Krasner’s notes:

It was suggested that a googolplex should be 1, followed by writing zeros until you get tired. This is a description of what would happen if one actually tried to write a googolplex, but different people get tired at different times and it would never do to have [then heavyweight boxing champion Primo] Carnera a better mathematician than [Albert] Einstein, simply because he had more endurance.

Sirotta died in 1981, so he never lived to see his most famous word reach its zenith of fame, but we’re all grateful for the fact that it’s such a great word. I mean, if Google (the name) never existed, then what would we call it instead?

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