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PerryDolia's avatar

What is the largest number you can actually visualize?

Asked by PerryDolia (3470points) August 14th, 2009

By “visualize” I mean that you can imagine that number of things, like that number of sheep in a field, or that number of pieces of paper.

We hear numbers like a 250 Gigabyte hard drive, or that the national debt is a trillion dollars, but I don’t think anyone, certainly not me, can visualize a billion or a trillion.

Seriously, what is the biggest number you can actually “see?”

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29 Answers

potrick's avatar

10. It’s said humans think in terms of ten because that’s the number of fingers on their hands, and it makes sense. I can conceive of higher numbers, but only up to ten can I naturally visualize.

ABoyNamedBoobs03's avatar

starts counting

Jack79's avatar

Hmm…good question. I think there is no clear-cut answer, and it varies. I think that you can automatically see 4 people coming and be sure it’s 4 and not 3 or 5. And you can be pretty sure that there are 10 basketball players in the court, even when they’re moving fast, but that’s usually because you already know that it’s two teams of 5. I think as the numbers grow, you become less and less certain.

For example, the other day at the theatre I saw the crowd and thought it was around 1000 people. Turns out it was a bit over 700, which is not far. We are going to play the same thing in a smaller theatre that I calculated had between 200–300 seats. Turns out it has 206 (I counted them today) so that’s not bad either. I can visualise numbers like this, especially when it comes to crowds of people, because I’ve been a performer for many years (a singer, not an actor) so I’ve got some experience with similar situations. But once I was asked to guess how many notes were in a pack of paper notes. I said 50 and it was 200. I bet my friend who works in the bank would have found that one.

ABoyNamedBoobs03's avatar

for me personally, I can comfortably get to 4096.

For some reason I chose to visualize pens, don’t know why, just needed something small and basic, and there’s on right in front of me.

next I aligned the pens in an order similar to a chess board, all the pens were on the black spaces.
chess boards are 8×8, so there are 32 pens in my initial grid. then I just copied that image to put an identical one right next to it, and etc.

32 becomes 64, then 128, then 256, etc. I can get up to 4096 pens this way comfortably, and I could probably go a pit further but I’d start to get a headache or get lost and have to start over.

I again I’m not really sure why I did it this way, it’s just the first way I thought of it. I think it helps me to visualize something on a plain rather than surrounded by nothing.

MrKnowItAll's avatar

@ potrick 21

Strauss's avatar

about 20, more if there are uniformly numbered groups (groups of 10, 12, etc).

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

I’d guess I could visualize 27 sheep. Anything more than that, and it gets to be simply ‘a crowd’. I can easily visualize 9 things, and three sets of nine is about my max. I have ten fingers and ten toes, so why I can easily visualize 9 is as much a mystery to me as it is to you.

fireside's avatar

This seems like a perfect question for the old Douglas Adams answer.

marinelife's avatar

Dammit, PerryDolia, I’m a word person not a mathematician! : D

Which is to say, I don’t really visualize numbers at all much beyond the very smallest. I can handle a score.

dpworkin's avatar

It depends upon what you are used to estimating. A forester can give you a pretty good idea of any number of trees in a survey just by looking.

markyy's avatar

The largest number I can visualize in my head would be something that comes in a grid like packaging. Like beer(24) and other stuff I buy when I go shopping. This question reminds me of a Pen&Teller: Bullshit episode. They explain how almost every number in the media is kind of useless and scares us easily because we don’t know what that number really means.

noodle_poodle's avatar

about ten….tho i picked people it might be more if i thought of beans orrr lego bricks

PerryDolia's avatar

One time, my family was at a park awaiting the fireworks. The park was jammed with people. I took one of my boys and asked them to estimate the crowd. We guessed our numbers (like 5000). We paced off a ten step by ten step square and counted the number of people in the square. Then we paced off the two sides of the park. We calculated about 10,000 people.yes, sometimes I do have too much time on my hands

If somebody said to me, visualize 100,000, I would picture the number of people in the stands at the super bowl.

I mention these things, because I think most Flutherites can picture larger numbers than they are saying here, even though you are being honest.

Or, is it just me that thinks about numbers this way?

marinelife's avatar

@PerryDolia You are probably right. I assumed you wanted to know what I could visualize in my mind without attempts at calculation.

PerryDolia's avatar


My point wasn’t that I was calculating the numbers. I meant to say that since I have now seen 10,000 people, I know what that number looks like.

I also know what 100,000 looks like.

I am not that sure if I can so easily visualize a million. So, I guess, for me, I am good up to about 100,000.

marinelife's avatar

But you calculated them initially, right?

PerryDolia's avatar

No, I estimate first. Then, of course I calculate. How else to know I was right in my estimates?

marinelife's avatar

@PerryDolia You see that is technical math jargon. My word person says, “Run away. run away!”

PerryDolia's avatar

I guess this would be a bad time to discuss means and standard deviations.

Bluefreedom's avatar

I can visualize up to the numer 742 but not beyond that and I have no idea why.

marinelife's avatar

@PerryDolia What about non-standard deviations like @AstroChuck’s coffee enema fixation?

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

This reminds me of the story of the two cowboys watching a stampede. The first cowboy says, “There are exactly two hundred cows in that stampede.” The second cowboy asks, “How can you know that?” The first cowboy replies, “It was easy, I just counted all the legs and divided by four.”

LostInParadise's avatar

25, pictured as 5 groups of 5, with the groups of 5 in both cases arranged as on dice

mattbrowne's avatar

I think we can visualize a sea of 200,000 people or so, e.g. during a large demonstration like the March on Washington in 1963, see picture here

LostInParadise's avatar

But can you visualize it as being 200,000 as opposed to any other number?

marinelife's avatar

@mattbrowne Good point. i was thinking about Obama’s inaugeration or the Million Man March.

mattbrowne's avatar

@LostInParadise – Yes, I think I can. Soccer stadium comparison also helps visualizing numbers in this range. See this list for example

The largest one in Germany when filled is about 80000. In my head I think can imagine how a crowd of 2.5 the size would look like approximately.

@Marina – Another great example! I tried to google the largest human crowds ever. It seems that the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca tops everything else.

rootbeer4545's avatar

i dont know wat the true answer is but i can tell u guys that i personally dont think this number line ends

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