Numbers

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The Independent Online
'SCUSE ME, Sir. Can you lend us pounds 11.4bn? In the past week, we have been assailed by large numbers. The bill for the British Library will come to pounds 450m rather than the pounds 116m estimated in 1978. Government borrowing for the first three months of the financial year was pounds 11.4bn compared with pounds 13.4bn in the same period last year. (Great] We can build four more libraries.) A lump of comet has hit Jupiter with the force of 12 billion Hiroshimas. And there are a million Rwandans dying in Goma.

We cannot grasp numbers as huge as these. Like primitive societies that count 'one, two, three, four, many', we all have our own number-comprehension ceilings. Do you feel a difference between pounds 450m and pounds 165m in the same way that you feel a difference between pounds 450 and pounds 165, or pounds 4.50 and pounds 1.65?

We can conceive of 1,000 people, which is a medium theatre full, or the 50,000 in a large football stadium, but how can we even think about feeding a million, who will not go home after the match?

Large numbers require primitive methods. In the 'one, two three, four, many' system, a dozen people may be three families. And a dozen families may be a village. pounds 450m for the British Library is pounds 7.50 for each of us. pounds 11.4bn borrowed in three months works out at pounds 2 from each Briton every day. Twelve billion Hiroshimas exploding on Jupiter sounds big, but according to Patrick Moore, is like 'throwing a baked bean at a charging rhino'. And the water needed to keep 1 million Rwandans alive would keep 100 taps running full blast day and night.

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