Science Education Under Attack—The Problem of Really Large Numbers

Before I get into today’s post, three updates to last week’s. First, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has come out publicly in favor of teaching evolution and cosmology, specifically the “Big Bang” theory, which Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas wants to eliminate, in the public schools. Second, it’s important to note that Superintendent Douglas does not have the last word on this issue, the state Board of Education does, and Douglas is only one member. She does, however, control what is presented to the Board, so this is not entirely good news. Third, the comment period on the proposed science standards revision was supposed to end on Monday, but when word of Douglas’s proposals got out, so many people commented—mostly in opposition, according to news reports—that the system crashed. It’s back up today and the comment period was extended to Friday. And yes, I put in my two cents.

Too Big to Grasp

On to today’s topic: big numbers. Really big numbers. I’m not talking tens or hundreds or even thousands. I mean millions and billions and trillions. Numbers like these get thrown around all the time: a $4 trillion US federal budget, the human body is made up of 100 trillion cells, the universe is an estimated 13 billion years old. Problem is, the poor old human brain can’t comprehend these numbers. A hundred years we can grasp. We know of people who have lived that long. A thousand years, or two thousand, maybe. After all, this is the year two-thousand-eighteen. Beyond that, though, if we try to think about these numbers, our minds, like pinball machines played a little too hard, go TILT!

This has been a known problem since at least Biblical times. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.” (Psalm 139:6)

The same is true for really small numbers: millionths and billionths and trillionths of an inch or an ounce, a centimeter or a gram.

Archbishop James Ussher
Archbishop Ussher

It’s easy, then, to see why religiously-inspired concepts like “intelligent design” gain a foothold: they’re simpler, and they don’t ask people to deal with numbers that are incomprehensible. Seventeenth century Anglican Archbishop James Ussher, using numbers where they were available in the Bible (Methuselah lived “900 years”) and assumptions where they were not, calculated that the universe was created on October 23, 4004 BCE, or 6,022 years ago, an almost comprehensible number. (I sometimes wonder why some Biblical literalist hasn’t suggested that October 25th, not April 22nd, should be the “real” Earth Day, since according to Genesis 1:10, it was on the third day of creation that God made the land and the waters.)

One Two Three… Infinity!

But back to the really big and really small numbers. Even today, some primitive tribes only have one, two, three, and many for their numbering/counting system. They don’t have ten fingers, they have many. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t need to know millions, or even hundreds, either. “Many” was good enough for most circumstances. It’s only in the last 200 years or so that millions, millionths, and beyond have become necessary. So while poet Walt Whitman’s mind might have been able to “contain multitudes,” the rest of ours can’t.

What can be done about this? Universal, quality science education in all schools—public, private, parochial, etc.—is a start. This is where we can start to build the case that really large and really small numbers, though hard or impossible to truly grasp, are nonetheless real and the science that needs to use them is legitimate. These numbers and the concepts using them don’t need to be taken on faith; there’s a logical, comprehensible, step-by-step process that leads to them. It’s even possible to make a case that science and religion are not necessarily and automatically in conflict. I’ll write about that in a later post.

For adults, scientists need to get out in public more, to communicate more, to show the step-wise development that leads to those very large and very small numbers, to make them a little less intimidating. Very large and very small numbers are not part of the daily lives of most citizens, and generally there’s no reason for them to be. This is why politicians and the press can make big deals out of a few million dollars of waste in a government program. When the total budget for the problem program is in the billions, that number is beyond people’s grasp, but a few million dollars is an average professional athlete’s annual salary, and that’s something the public can relate to. Maybe this is the key: tying those big and small science numbers to ones people are more used to seeing, where possible. It won’t work in every case, but it’s a start.

Next time I’ll pick up on a concept I hinted at here: simplicity versus complexity.

Your Thoughts

What do you think about the big numbers problem? I’d like to see your thoughts in the comments below.

 

One Reply to “Science Education Under Attack—The Problem of Really Large Numbers”

  1. I guess I need to get a grip on reality. I talk in really big numbers mostly…”If I have said it once, I have said it a million times!” Really? A MILLION times? I doubt it. Conversely on a lesser scale….”What I ate last night could have not kept a bird alive.” Who was I kidding? An entire aviary full of birds could have survived on what I ate but THAT night I thought I ate less! I am so ready for science to educate the masses and, yes, even ME, to truly relate to really big numbers that actually exist. Bring it on because this is where we are now.

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