Coming up soon is April 15, the traditional date taxpayers join astronomers in being obsessed with numbers.
We astronomers love math — we’ll take all the numerals you care to throw at us. But the average person is oblivious of even simple number stats like the diameter of the Sun, which equals a line-up of 108 Earths. Even the Sun’s distance, 93 million miles, was considered esoteric enough to be the very first million-dollar question on the popular TV show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Surveys show that most folks can recite just a single celestial numeral. Nine.
For 76 years, that was the number of planets in the known universe. It was a certainty, one of astronomy’s gospels. Many pre-teens had posters on their bedroom wall depicting the nine planets. The digit’s familiarity probably explains why so many were upset in 2006 when Pluto was demoted from its former classification as a planet. That the International Astronomical Union decided to take away the sole familiar piece of astronomy math did not go over well. It didn’t help that sprinkled among us is a large unorganized cohort of Goofy dog supporters.
Moreover, in much of the world the number nine is considered the most special of all the numbers, even sacred. That’s because, like the Eastern view of life itself, nine always returns to itself. Meaning, when nine is multiplied by any number and distilled into a single digit, you always end up coming back to nine. For example, 9 x 3 = 27, and those digits 2 and 7 add up to nine. Or 9 x 8 is 72 and, sure enough, 7 + 2 equals nine once again.
Our celestial numberconfusion routinely shows up when people exclaim that they camped under a sky filled with “millions of stars.” Surprisingly, the actual number of stars visible from a dark rural location is only 2,500. Or when folks mention that those stars are “millions of lightyears away,” since the average distance to stars viewable without a telescope is actually only around 200 lightyears.
Then we have oftrepeated numerical cliches like: “There are more stars in the universe than all the grains of sand on Earth.” Well, it turns out the visible universe’s total starcount is about a hundred million trillion. Which is far fewer than Earth’s sand grains unless you strictly limit yourself to beaches and ignore all the deserts. So maybe the cosmos isn’t that big after all. Or maybe there’s more room to spread a beach blanket than we imagine.
The bottom line has always been: Making sense of the universe. Though dealing with taxes this month may not be a particularly helpful step in that direction, numbers will always remain so crucial in comprehending the cosmos, we’ll never be able to write them off.