The Number is Sand

Nearly everyone’s seen those books, posters, etc: “How many is a million?” Actually, if you search Amazon for books on a million you’ll come up with a whole bunch on the same theme: trying to express the concept of million to children. It’s sort of a brilliant idea, but I’m not sure how possible it is.

cats_4In my high school world history class, our teacher stressed the significance of the invention of mathematics. Also the concept of zero. Both are extremely important, and probably represent huge moments in human achievement.

That they are important is inarguable (not true, everything can be debated given enough alcohol time, but never mind), but they’re also sort of inevitable. Simple math, numbers, counting: all came from trade. Business men needed a way to differentiate more from less, to assure that they were getting a reasonably equal worth. The origins of writing can be found in these clerical slips. Symbolic representation does not come from a human need for art or communication. It comes from accounting.

117674694_6dd1d296d7_oAs significant and important as it is, I can’t help but think it must not have taken a huge leap of genius to start counting apples and oranges (or really probably dates and papayas since we are talking about the cradle of civilization here). You don’t really need the deep philosophy behind math to understand that 5 is more than 4. Babies and animals can identify these basic differences, because the concepts of less and more are far simpler than 4 and 5. Much (most?) of math comes down to this idea. Basic algebra is not that difficult, and honestly has more to do with logic than math. All I’m getting at here is that however much we may have pulled out our hair writing calculus proofs, math as an idea is pretty intuitive.

MATH though is more than numbers. Math is about theories, about twisting common sense, about measuring things that cannot be measured (imaginary numbers anyone?). Physics is a practical application of mathematics, and a theoretical physician can tell you exactly how practical physics is. Engineering is the practical application of physics, and even they come up with some whoopers.

The invention of zero falls firmly in the realms of math as a theory, beyond the tangible. If you’ve never heard of zilch, it’s a bit more of a stretch to conceive of it, but I still don’t think it’s particularly miraculous.

1402074671_f7b8a4f0fe“0” as a number might be hard to understand, but the concept of zero is pretty simple; it is nothing, it is absence, it has existed and been related to in all of human history because it is death. As I said, the application of zero is a bit more than “do not have” just as 5 is more than apples (dates). At some point though, it is not all that surprising that someone said: “I had five apples. Now I do not have them. Ergo: zero.” (All inventers must say ergo. Or possibly thenceforth.)

I say this not to understate the hugeness of inventing zero, is is merely to explain how small the understanding of zero is compared to the understanding of million.

3007995381_7eb72305a0_oI can have five apples. I can have zero oranges. But I guarantee I will never have a million apples or oranges. Even if I do, if you see what I mean.

To talk about millions is as effective as talking about infinity. No matter how long you look at a book with a million ants, or a million cars, or a million people, your brain, or at least MY brain, is incaple of comprehending any more than the trollish concept of “lots.” If you were to show me a photo with an infinite number of marbles (not possible I know) I would think: lots. A billion=lots. Million=lots. 100,000=lots. To be perfectly honest, 500=lots.  I’m not sure what the numerical cuttoff is, but I suspect it’s a much lower number than we think. I certainly understand that a million is more than 500, but it ceases to be a question of “how many” and becomes a question of “how big.” The group of ants with a million is bigger than the group with 500, but as far as my brain’s ability to count is concerned, there is NO OTHER DIFFERENCE. I can know that there are more ants in the million group, but it is impossible for me to see it.

1,000,000 is a number, but it’s not a real number. It is absolutely possible for something to exist and not be real. If you want to count the grains of sand on a beach, the answer is not a number, the answer is: It’s sand. The number is sand. How many stars are there? Lots. The number of stars is stars. That is the nature of stars, that they are uncountable. The fact that there are a finite number of sand grains (or stars, though I have no idea if that number is finite) is completely irrelevant because even if a machine counter told you that there were 94,392,347,778 grains of sand, the answer would still be: It’s sand.*

I would guess that it was far easier to invent the number 1 million than the number 0, but there is such a huge difference between knowing and understanding. In these days of unfathomable deficits, idiotic house prices, and rising world population, million has become common as dirt, and is generally shuffled aside for words like billion and even trillion. Ultimately though, they might as well use the same number, because it’s all the same to me.

*The irony here is that in order to explain the concept of infinity, all you can do is compare it to a really big number, while in reality the closest we come to honestly understanding a really big number is infinity, which is actually not all that difficult to understand, and basically comes down to: +1 etc.
**Photos by me, Srqpix Bruno Girin and Sanyam Studios.

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  • 26 Sep 2009, 12:02am
    drawings on creation


    Pattern Recognition

    This week’s Illustration Friday is “Pattern,” and I had an old piece that fit too well to resist. I’ve never posted it on this blog, but I posted it last year some time on Living in Space.

    2170347933_2d2a47dbec_oThe title I gave this at the time was EmpTV. The style is much more simplistic than I usually do, playing more a comic-y effect, and appropriately, experimenting with pattern. I like the result, though I probably won’t repeat it often, since I’m sort of obsessed with line and detail. Another piece that I found a bit more interesting was this one:

    art_26The theme for this was “zoo,” can’t remember if it was for IF or something else. I was especially happy with the squiggly patterning in the bushes in the back, and this piece, far more than the TV zombie piece, ended up being a directional piece for my style. The blog logo for example, was absolutely drawn with this piece in mind.

    Finally, since both these pieces are old, I figure I’ll give you a sketch I did this week: (don’t have a scanner, so a photo is the best I can do)caribou

    This was drawn yesterday at a Caribou in some Chicago suburb. Not exactly sure where we were, but you can rest assured, if there’s a Caribou in the area, Matt and I will find it.

    Normally when I sketch in public I concentrate on people, but since I’d like to do more finished drawings involving cityscapes, industrial pieces, and in general, less organic subjects, I took the opportunity to make myself draw the whole room. It took a shift in perspective to say the least. I started with the fireplace, and though it was relatively easy to estimate the size on the page, I was surprised at how small everything was. I’m hoping this will also help my background staging in general illustration since one of the criticisms I’ve received with my artwork is that backgrounds are a bit stiff (I AGREE). You can see what I mean here:messenger4_web
    This is part of a comic I created (ignore the implication that I finished it, I only inked 5 pages) called Messenger of the Gods, to show at Wizard World a few years ago. (More Messenger of the Gods pages in my Gallery)

    I’m hoping if I keep practicing drawing settings they won’t feel so much like, well, backgrounds.

    (Note RE: a couple other crits I got on these pieces – The character looks like a boy because… he is a boy… who happens to have long hair. The character looks like he has a black eye because he… wait for it… has a black eye.)

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  • 19 Sep 2009, 8:52pm



    When I heard the Illustration Friday word of the week, “Infinite,” the first thing I thought of was the silly philosophy question “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”
    I’m pretty sure at least one of the answers that came out of that was “infinite,” but I could be thinking of “is Hell endo or extothermic?”

    Of course there are other ideas about the pin question…

    “Firstly, angels simply don’t dance. It’s one of the distinguishing characteristics that marks an angel. They may listen appreciatively to the Music of the Spheres, but they don’t feel the urge to get down and boogie to it. So, none.

    At least, nearly none. Aziraphale had learned to gavotte in a discreet gentlemen’s club in Portland Place, in the late 1880s, and while he had initially taken to it like a duck to merchant banking, after a while he had become quite good at it, and was quite put out when, some decades later, the gavotte went out of style for good.

    So providing the dance was a gavotte, and providing that he had a suitable partner (also able, for the sake of arguement, both to gavotte, and to dance it on the head of a pin), the answer is a straightforward one.

    Then again, you might just as well ask how many demons can dance on the head of a pin. They’re of the same original stock, after all. And at least they dance.

    And if you put it that way, the answer is, quite a lot actually, providing they abandon their physical bodies, which is a picnic for a demon. Demons aren’t bound by physics. If you take the long view, the universe is just something small and round, like those water-filled balls which produce a miniature snowstorm when you shake them. But if you look from really close up, the only problem about dancing on the head of a pin is all those big gaps between electrons.”

    Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

    I haven’t decided yet whether to develop the sketch into a portfolio piece… I like the concept but I’m not sure if I’m actually managing to draw the pins successfully.

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