Archive for September, 2010

Shy googol

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

I remember being in third grade when my older brother told me what a “googol” is.

“It’s a number. A googol is a ‘1’ with a hundred zeroes after it.”

A hundred zeroes! That’s so many!

“A kid thought of the name,” my brother continued. “His dad or someone wanted a name for this number, and this kid suggested ‘googol’, so it stuck.”

A kid named a number?!?

First of all, it had never occurred to me that you could name a number. Numbers just were. How could you name something that already existed?

Second, a kid named a number, and now other people, grown-up people, were using that name? That was amazing, too.

But best of all was that my brother had let me in on a secret. Few people knew about the number with the funny name. Few people knew that a kid had named a number. Thinking about a googol was like savoring a secret, and it gave me a glimpse of mathematics beyond the arithmetic and basic algebra I was learning at the time.

This, of course, took place before the 1990’s.

Now “google” is a noun, a verb, a word that refers to the number googol as part of its history. Shy googol, named in 1938 and for decades residing in the half-light of quasi-fame as a mathematical anecdote, now has an upstart cousin who has usurped the name and made it into a household world.

Of course, Google tips its hat to its family of origin by having so many “o’s” in its name on its search results page, a visual nod to the hundred zeroes in a googol. Yet one wonders about googol. The meaning of “Google” rings so loudly when one contemplates “googol” that we risk losing a charming story about an inspirational number.