The Need for Numbers

Astrophysicists and other experts tell us the sun will begin to die in about 5 billion years, when its supply of hydrogen is depleted. That unfathomable length of time is easy to dismiss as “nothing to worry about.” Surely some other cataclysmic event will occur long before then to end human habitation of Planet Earth. Whatever that event might be, it will take place so far in the future we need not worry about it today…right? But the scientists might be wrong. While I write this morning’s post, a heretofore unknown but absolutely natural “bomb” at the center of our favorite star may be nearing the critical temperature at which it will detonate. That super-explosive component, previously unknown to humans, might have uncontrollable violent power several hundred million times greater than the combined energy of the fifty stars nearest to us. When that power is unleashed—in five minutes or five days or five billion years—our current expectation that the sun will wither into a cooling white dwarf will be irrelevant. A large section of the Milky Way and several nearby galaxies instantly will be consumed by incinerating heat. The pressure of the explosion will cause the universe to fracture into multiple dimensions that are so far beyond anything that exists today that no one can even begin to describe them. Not that it matters, of course, in that no one will exist to attempt to describe them. We might see some warning signs of the impending end, though. Pieces of the exterior surface of the sun may peel off in shreds, piercing space at speeds rivaling the speed of light, and pass near Earth in a frightening display of atmospheric terror. So, we may well have time to panic—pointlessly—before our bodies instantly meld with empty space and celestial debris. But this is all supposition; these potentials may not be possible. So, all we can do is live in dread or concoct our own scenarios about the actual end of the world as we know it.


How many gallons of cow’s milk are produced, worldwide, every twenty-four hours? How many grains of sand exist, today, on Planet Earth? And what about leaves—is anyone responsible for keeping a running count of the number of leaves on all the trees on the planet? At what point do numbers become meaningless—is there such a point? How much is too much? How little is too little? I think numbers become useless and irrelevant when the context of their measures becomes so large that all meaning is lost. Though it is possible for the number of grains of sand in a ten by ten foot by ten foot room to be counted, when the context (the room) is increased to over two-hundred-thousand acres. But where is the dividing line? When does possible become impossible? If I were asked to count backward to zero from 500-billion multiplied by itself, I would not know where to start; fulfilling that request would be, for me, impossible. There is a point beyond which everything is absurd. But is there a mathematical formula that can be used to calculate that dividing line? If so, what’s the point?


I was more than a little tired yesterday, so after lunch I napped while the rest of the folks in the house went off in search of shoes. Last night, when I went to bed, I had a hard time getting to sleep. In fact, I was awake for much of the night, which probably means I will be quite tired today. My body needs rest; I know that. And I am happy to provide opportunities for it to get what it needs. But there’s a point beyond which sleep may be inviting but unnecessary. I suspect I reached that point yesterday. Ach!


Fatigue is the best pillow.

~ Benjamin Franklin ~


Time for more espresso. The machine is not working properly, but even in its stinginess it gives me enough caffeine to begin to engage with the day.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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