If only electrons moved that fast . . .

Innumeracy in Computer Technology

Conrad Weisert, 4 June 2011
©2011, Information Disciplines, Inc.

NOTE: This article may be reproduced and circulated freely, as long as the copyright credit is included.

"When computer speeds broke into the microsecond range, she commanded her staff to 'bring her a microsecond.' Puzzled, she eventually explained she wanted to see one, and sent them off to cut pieces of wire that were the length that light traveled in one microsecond; she gave these out at her presentations. She climaxed that part of the presentation by having a strong member of her staff stumble onto the stage, carrying a large, heavy reel of wire: the distance light traveled in a millisecond."

I found the above paragraph in a draft article about Grace Murray Hopper in one of those web "encyclopedias", but I won't identify the exact source here, because there's no need to embarrass the author and because it will surely be corrected by the time many of you read these words.

A couple of decades ago a delightful book by John Allen Paulos pointed out the growing difficulty people (mostly Americans) were having with concepts involving numbers. The shortcoming isn't so much an inability to do arithmetic as just a failure to grasp the meaning of magnitudes, especially very large and very small ones.

We all learned in school that light (or other electromagnetic energy) travels at 299,000 kilometers (186,000 miles) per second in a vacuum. In a wire it's a little slower, but on the same order of magnitude. It follows, as a fifth grader can easily figure, that the distance light covers in a millisecond is roughly 299 kilometers (186 miles). It would indeed have taken a very "strong member of her staff" to carry that reel of wire onto a stage. The above gaffe should never have gotten past either the author or a reviewer.

Those of us who attended Admiral Hopper's entertaining presentations, recall her handing out wire nanoseconds to the audience and displaying that clumsy microsecond reel. But even if we hadn't been there, shouldn't we instantly sense something wrong with the above?

Unfortunately, such slips are a symptom of a far more serious problem in contemporary society: the "-illions" confusion. Government debt, corporate profit, and executive bonuses are all huge numbers in the eyes of the public. A billion sounds scary; a trillion sounds a bit worse. If we can just eliminate the $20 million in medicare fraud, one interviewed voter confidently asserted, we'll come close to balancing the Federal budget!

Last modified 4 June 2011

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