What’s the Biggest Number?


We were driving home from our grocery shopping rounds this week, when “math girl” piped up from the backseat.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“What’s the biggest number?”

“Well, actually, there is no biggest number. No matter what number you name, I can name one bigger.”

“One hundred.” She challenged.

“One hundred one.” I shot back.

“One thousand.” She said.

“One thousand one.” I replied.

“One thousand two.” She said smugly.

“One thousand three.” I countered.

“Sweetie, there is no biggest number. Numbers are what we call ‘infinite’: they go on forever.”

“Okay. One hundred plus one hundred. That’s big.”

“That’s two hundred.”

“One hundred one hundreds.” She countered again, smug in the confidence that she had stumped me.

“Pretty good, math girl.” I admitted. “One hundred one hundreds would be ten thousand.”

“Wow, that’s a big number.”

“But not the biggest, because you can have eleven thousand, twelve thousand, thirteen thousand. A hundred thousand. A million. A billion. A trillion.”

“A trillion and one?”

“Yep. Even a trillion and two. There is no biggest number. No matter how big you go, there is always something bigger. Numbers are infinite: they go on forever.” I explained again.

At dinner that night:
“Daddy, what’s the biggest number? One hundred?”
(Hmm, not trusting Mom’s math or what? I wondered. Just gotta’ ask the engineer the math question?)

“Well, one hundred is a pretty big number, but what about one hundred one?” Daddy asked.

And so the conversation went, Daddy confirming what Mom had said earlier. And again, the words “infinite” and “infinity” entered the conversation.

Eventually the conversation changed from infinitely big numbers to addition and subtraction, a little easier on the mind.

I remember as a preteen thinking about infinity, lying on my back in the grass on a starry night, looking at all those stars realizing that what I saw was but a small slice of my own small galaxy in an ever expanding universe, and feeling so overwhelmed, but at the same time so grateful to be part of something bigger than me—thankful that I was not (and am not) the center of the universe. It will be a while before our daughter begins to have thoughts about her place in the universe. It will probably be a while before she looks up and feels humbled by the stars, although nighttime star viewing is one of her favorite activities. Right now though, it is fun to watch her mind work as she grapples with a new, wild concept: a situation in which you cannot have “the biggest”.

So, on the eve of her first day of kindergarten, on the weekend her Daddy and I introduced her to the concept of infinitely large numbers, I say: “Have fun Mrs. ____. I suspect you will be asked what the biggest number is shortly.”

Of course, it is possible that she will save that question for the art teacher.

© 2012 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “What’s the Biggest Number?

  1. I remember the first time I looked at the night sky and realized how small and insignificant I am in the big scheme of things…a real eye-opener. I feel the same way when I stand on one of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta’s Jasper National Park. I hope your little one has an opportunity to view majestic sights, too…whether it’s a starry night in a clear sky or an awe-inspiring view from a mountain top. Good for the soul, I think, and for putting life in perspective.

    Great post, Michelle.

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