All for Nought

by Kim Pederson…….

I read a science-fiction short story a long long time ago (and in a mental galaxy far far away, no doubt) called “The Nine Billion Names of God” written by SF icon Arthur C. Clarke. In the story, two Western computer experts are hired by Tibetan monks to do programming that will help the monks list and print out all the names of God [their capital G], which they think is the reason the universe was created. Once the naming is complete, they believe, God will close down shop. The computer guys poohpooh this doomsday objective and so, not worried, they help the monks complete their nine billion name list. As they wait to fly back home, the namenclature nerds look up at the night sky and figure the monks must be just finishing pasting the printed names into their holy book. As soon as they say that, they notice that “overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

So far, so good. All lights still on, apparently.*
So far, so good. All lights still on, apparently.*

I thought about this story right after I read about the “googol.” In January 1997, astronomers Fred Adams and Gregory Laughlin predicted that the universe would terminate in one googol. A googol is the number one followed by one hundred zeros or ten to the one hundredth power (or ten followed by thirty-three sets of triple zeroes if that makes it a smidgen more comprehensible). Minus the eighteen years since 1997, that leaves us with…sorry, my calculator only goes up to six places. The term “googol” was conceived in 1938 by a nine-year-old boy, Milton Sirotta, after his mathematician uncle asked him to come up with a name for a very big number.

As you might have guessed, Google (reportedly) took its name from the googol, first because of the similarity and second because we’re too think that Google returns that many search results. It also named its headquarters, the Googleplex, after the googolplex, which is ten raised to the tenth power raised to the one hundredth power.

One wonders (and by one I mean me) what might have happened if Milton had coined some other word. He might have said something like “snuffleoctoplatopottamus.” Then Google would be Snuffleoctoplatopottamus, its headquarters would be the Snuffleoctoplatopottamusplex, and we would be saying things like “I don’t know the answer. Hold on a minute while I snuffleoctoplatopottamus it.” It sounds kind of fun actually.

My other thought, and yes, two in one day is a lot for me, was that we never have to worry about the end of the universe because there can’t be enough zeroes out there to ever reach the year Googol. I held this thought for about two seconds, just long enough to glance at the TV news, the newspaper headlines, and the Marblehead Reporter police log (“A 911 caller reported that a woman had knocked on the door, saying she needed to weigh a suitcase, as she was going to Paris and bringing books.”). This quashed my brief hope. Sadly, the number of zeroes out there seems to be abundant, probably on the order of a googol raised to the googoleth power. Luckily, I don’t have that many years left to go, so I will not be around when “overhead, without any fuss, the stars begin to go out,” which, when you think about it, would be, like snuffleoctoplatopotamussing, actually kind of cool to witness in person.

* “Earth’s Location in the Universe” by Andrew Z. Colvin. Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Visit Kim Pederson’s blog RatBlurt: Mostly Random Short-Attention-Span Musings.

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