August 12, 2019

Douglas Hofstadter on “Number Numbness” (1982). He is the author of “Goedel, Escher, Bach”, and also coined “Hofstadter’s law”:

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

The article makes a great point of people not being able to grasp very large numbers:

I once taught a small beginning physics class on the thirteenth floor of Hunter College in New York City. From the window we had a magnificent view of the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan. In one of the opening sessions, I wanted to teach my students about estimates and significant figures, so I asked them to estimate the height of the Empire State Building. In a class of ten students, not one came within a factor of two of the correct answer (1,472 feet with the television antenna, 1,250 without). Most of the estimates were between 300 and 500 feet. One person thought 50 feet was right-a truly amazing underestimate; another thought it was a mile.

Though the rest of the article focusses more on truly large numbers, like the difference between a million, a billion and a trillion, this quote shows that people have already difficulties with numbers which aren’t that big.