Journey to Infinity

and what you might find along the way


BrainWorks 4

1 Huge numbers

It's easy to count up to 100. If you have time, and feel like doing it, you could count up to a thousand. It's very doubtful that you would ever want to count up to a million. It's even more doubtful that you would be able to finish that task. Can you even visualise, picture in your mind, a million of anything?

Never mind a million. We have now come across references to billion and quadrillion. I told you that this section is not about mathematics, but let's see if there are ways of thinking about such huge figures. That's not quite the same as doing long and difficult calculations.

Here's a chance for you to dig around and see if there are things in the world that can be numbered in such large figures. For instance, you could check up on:

total number of different kinds of organisms living on our planet

people (populations)


ants in a nest



stars we can see

stars we cannot see

distances between galaxies

speed of calculations done by high-powered computers

grains of sand on a beach

2 Communication

Now let's come down the Earth. Ants communicate by wiggling their antennae. Bees communicate by performing little dances. The neurons in your brain communicate by means of tiny electro-chemical currents. You might imagine them as little lights flashing on and off. Humans communicate by speech, hearing, expressions, touch and gestures.

(By the way, how does a computer 'communicate', i.e., receive and send information?)

How reliable are these methods of communication?

I chose one small pattern from the Mandelbrot fractal. After isolating it with my graphics software, I positioned copies of it along a path. Imagine that each 'thing' in the sequence is a living creature, perhaps human. If you give the creature/person at one end a message, and the message is passed along the line, will it arrive at the other end without being changed? Think about that problem in the context of real life: How reliable is person-to-person communication and when might it go wrong? When might this happen? Can it lead to funny consequences? Can it lead to serious consequences?

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