large numbers

big number

Bigger than the biggest thing ever and then some. Much bigger than that in fact, really amazingly immense, a totally stunning size, real 'wow, that's big,' time... Gigantic multiplied by colossal multiplied by staggeringly huge is the sort of concept we're trying to get across here.


—Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe


Making, naming, and representing very large numbers is itself a big problem. A simple way to start is by adding zeros: 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000, ..., 1,000,000, ... But this quickly gets tedious and exponentiation becomes a more attractive option: 101, 102, 103, ..., 106, ... Naming the various powers of 10 follows a regular pattern of prefixes. In the United States, 103 is one thousand, 106 is one million, 109 is one billion, 1012 is one trillion, 1015 is one quadrillion, and so on. The "-illion" root kicks in at the sixth power of 10 prefixed by "m" for "mono"; then, every jump of three powers (factor of a thousand) comes the next prefix. Put another way, the U.S. name for 103n uses the Latinized prefix for n-1. One centillion, which is the largest number with a single-word name in English, is 10303. Elsewhere in the world, "billion," "trillion," and so on, can mean other things than they do in the American system. A British billion, for example, is one million million, or 1012, while the now largely-obsolete term milliard was used for a thousand million. However, the American forms have become fairly standard internationally and will be used without qualification in this book. It's also worth noting that, while "quadrillion," "quintillion," etc, are perfectly valid terms, "one thousand trillion," "one million trillion," and so forth, are generally preferred.


The googol, googolplex, and beyond

Exponentiating quite small numbers seems at first to be a pretty economical way of making and writing large numbers: 1030, for example, is a highly effective shorthand for 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. But this method runs out of steam as the numbers get bigger and bigger. Take, for instance, the googol and the googolplex. One googol is the unofficial name for 10100, or 1 followed by 100 zeros. This innocuous-looking number is larger than the number of atoms in the universe. What happens, therefore, if we want to represent the number that is 1 followed by a googol number of zeros? One way would be to write "1 followed by a googol number of zeros"! But this is cheating because it couldn't be generalized without first giving a proper name to a ridiculously large number of numbers. A better solution is to exponentiate using large numbers. Thus, 1 googolplex = 10googol = 1010^100. This is the beginnings of a power tower.


Useful big numbers

Are numbers as large as the googol, not to mention the googolplex, of any practical importance? Science has given us such colossi as Avogadro's number (the number of molecules in a sample whose weight in grams equals its molecular weight) = 6.023 × 1023, the Eddington number (astrophysicist Arthur Eddington's best estimate of the number of protons in the universe) = 1.575 × 1079, and the Supermassive Black Hole Evaporation Time = 10100 years (or thereabouts) – which brings us to the level of the googol. But there's nothing known or that can be reasonably conjectured in the "real" world of physics that goes much beyond this. Science fiction can carry us a bit further. In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,1 by Douglas Adams, appears one of the largest numbers ever used in a work of fiction: 2260199. These are the odds quoted against the characters Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect being rescued by a passing spaceship just after having been thrown out of an airlock. As it happens, they are rescued – by a spaceship powered by the "infinite improbability drive." By contrast, some special numbers in mathematics make even the googolplex look tiny. Skewes' number, 1010^10^34, was long held up as an example of a googolplex-dwarfing number that nevertheless served a bona fide purpose in mathematics. However, even this seemingly immense integer is made to look ridiculously small by the likes of more recently described numbers, such as Graham's number, the Mega, and the Moser, which are so utterly vast that it takes several pages just to describe the various special notations used to represent them.


Just as writing out a number "in full," or in place-value notation, becomes unwieldy with numbers as big as a googol, so exponentiation, in turn, endangers the world's forests if it tries to take on seriously large numbers. A more effective shorthand is tetration – "tetra" (from the Greek meaning "four") because it is the fourth dyadic operation in the series: addition, multiplication, exponentiation, tetration. Dyadic means that two numbers, or arguments, are involved in the operation. Multiplication is repeated addition (e.g., 2 × 3 = 2 + 2 + 2), exponentiation is repeated multiplication (e.g., 23 = 2 × 2 × 2), and tetration is repeated exponentiation. For example, 2 tetrated to 3, represented as 32, is 22^2 = 24 = 16; 2 tetrated to 4, or 42, is 22^2^2 = 216 = 65,536; and 2 tetrated to 5, or 52, is 22^2^2^2 = 265,536 = something too big to write out in full. Tetration goes by various other names including superpower, superdegree, and, the one used most commonly in mathematical circles and also here from now on, hyper4.


New ways of writing seriously large numbers

Just as the exponentiation of two numbers, a and b, is represented as ab and defined as a × a × ... × a (b terms), the hyper4 of a and b is represented as a(4)b and defined as aa^a^...^a (a power tower with b levels). Alternatively, the hyper4 operator can be represented in Knuth's up-arrow notation as a ↑↑ b. Continuing this pattern:


hyper5 of a and b = a(5)b = a(4)a(4) ... a(4) = a ↑↑↑ b
hyper6 of a and b = a(6)b = a(5)a(5) ... a(5) = a ↑↑↑↑ b
hyper7 of a and b = a(7)b = a(6)a(6) ... a(6) = a ↑↑↑↑↑ b


To get some idea of the potency of this kind of representation, consider the sequence


000000000000000000000000000000000000000, (100 zeroes)


Notice how big even the fourth term is? The seemingly innocuous-looking number 5 ↑↑↑↑↑ 5, or 5(7)5, is so huge that it would be around the 100,000,000,000,000,000th (one hundred thousand trillionth) term of this sequence!


Since the dyadic operators discussed above form a pattern, they can be telescoped into a single triadic operator that has three arguments. This can be defined as:


hy(a, n, b) = { 1 + b for n = 0
{ a + b for n = 1
{ a × b for n = 2
{ ab for n = 3
{ a ↑ hy(a, 4, b-1) for n = 4
{ hy(a, n-1, hy(a, n, b-1)) for n > 4
{ a for n > 1, b = 1


Beyond hyper are other triadic operators capable of generating large numbers even faster. The Ackermann function and the Steinhaus-Moser notation are both equivalent to a triadic operator that is somewhat more powerful than hy(a, n, b). Similarly, Conway's chained-arrow notation marks an evolution of Knuth's symbolism. These various techniques and notations can produce immense finite numbers. But beyond any of these, lie the many different kinds of infinity.



1. Adams, Douglas. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. New York: Ballantine, 1995.