Sunday, August 29, 2010

Billions

Walking and math, I've found, are excellent partners, exercisers of body and brain respectively. In the city, I've often escaped from stress, motors, politics, and worries by simple routines: how many steps to the next corner, what's this month's percent drop in net worth, how long to reach a billion by counting once a second. Math puts a sheen of order to a world that looks to be teeming with disorder.

In the country, on a certain lane in Maine, for example, the exercises get a bit more philosophical. I'm much freer to think about big, and small, things, and their wonders. Nature's profligacy and chaos, for example: how many leaves and needles on just this little stretch of road, how many bugs, how many stars at night. The lane ends at the ocean, where life is even more amazing - a billion phytoplankton in a quart of water. Here orderly math lies under the apparent disorder in a perfect arrangement of cells and atoms.

Thoreau said, "I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can afford to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another, that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp -- tadpoles which herons gobble up and tortoises and toads run over in the road." Would he be so sanguine with our present suffering, our population projected to reach 7 billion sometime in 2011 or 2012, the way we prey on tuna and lynxes and rare wildflowers, the way we burn carbon and religions alike?

A billion has become understandable, just barely maybe, but still I can imagine those 32 years it takes to count one number per second, day and night. Not sure if I can imagine a trillion, a wonder in itself, approaching the infinite. My own body is an example of this dilemma. The number of cells in the average human body is finite, obviously, but might as well be infinite. Nobody knows for sure how many cell there are, because of constant birth and death; estimates range between 10 trillion and 100 trillion. I think this is comforting, this chaos within order, this inner immensity propelling me along.

Numbers are infinite, space is infinite, the earth is not. Tortoises and toads indeed: our mere 7 billion will run them over and use them up, unless we come to our census.

1 comment:

Jeff Boatright said...

Thoreau's statement is similar to what the young-ish Darwin struggled with in deciding whether to publish "On Origin of Species". I highly recommend the movie "Creation" for some commentary on this. Though much of the biographical "data" are not true, the inner conflict apparently was, and is well-presented by the production and actors.