Wednesday, March 19, 2014


When I read that there were 6,912 known languages, my mind immediately raced down the alphabet:

Italian ....

Of course, French also fit at F, Icelandic was a worthy I, and Czech was an obvious runner up for C.

B had briefly stumped me. But then, just when Bangla came to mind, so did Bantu.

“Bantu: A group of over 400 closely related languages in a family
that includes Swahili and Zulu.”

Were I a lazy cheat, I might simply have pulled up the full list of the Bantu languages. But I was invested in the intellectual challenge of pondering my way to Z, certain, though, that I now knew how my alphabetic romp would end.  

That number–of–languages article was something that I had squirreled away years ago in a hanging file I labeled “Numbers of Things.” I’ve collected references to large numbers for decades, the way others collect Hummel figures and baseball cards. Any time I encountered a large number, I’d pop it into that file.   

The human body consists of 10 trillion cells.
Each body houses 90 trillion microbes.

Such numbers, I thought, would add heft to my writing.

I’m sure my obsession with big numbers––and my absolute faith in their value––started in Miss Mills’s third-grade classroom. She drilled us mercilessly:

The sun is 93 million miles from earth.
The boundaries of Pennsylvania enclose 44,800 square miles.

We kids were made to understand that our very existences hung on our ability to imbibe and later regurgitate big numbers, encyclopedic facts, and random factoids.  

But, really. What can we truly grasp of staggering numbers?

A children’s author attempted to address this in his book How Much is a Million?

He wrote: “Set aside 23 days and nights if you want to count from one to one million at a rate of 2 seconds per number. For a billion, allow 95 years. For a trillion, reserve 200,000 years.”

We have a clear sense of 23 days, though not what it would mean to do something every two seconds during that entire period. Furthermore, the shift up to the next order of magnitude, and the next, is completely incomprehensible.

I began to think that one might better grasp the numbers of things and the language of numbers through extrapolation. So, on a late afternoon walk, I decided to count “things” for one hour.

3 cottontail bunnies munched happily on a fragrant, new-mown lawn.

189 birds soared above me, though I can’t confirm that one or more of them didn’t fly by and then circle back, just to mess up my data collection.

6 bobcats. Not the self-propelled ones of Mother Nature but those compact, toy-like tractors that dot neighborhoods like mine that are undergoing McMansionization.  

Trees: impossible to count.

Their leaves: out of the question.

And forget about enumerating blades of grass.

That Miss Mills! She so misled me and the other kids. She said the big numbers were vital. But, honestly, they tell us nothing.

It’s the munching bunnies, the cruising birds, the smell of new-mown grass, and the presence of the bobcats that give us insights. They show us what we can actually know about the nature of our world.

Countless snowbirds at Middle Creek Nature Preserve.  February, 2005. 

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