Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Who Enjoys Counting?

Ahoy Reader,

Those of you who know me know that I love mathematics. I love learning mathematics, using mathematics and I love how everything in the entire universe can be simplified to mathematical equations and formulae (sort of).

But it was while enjoying a riveting tale of Sherlock Holmes that it struck me that maybe we're all using numbers wrong. Today if you would like to say or write a number we go from biggest to smallest. For example you would say "five hundred and twenty three"; we start with the biggest denomination, hundreds, then descend to tens then singles. However there was a time when it was not unusual to express smaller denominations first and I would imagine in many other languages/numeric systems this is the norm. For example in Sherlock Holmes' tale of The Red-Headed League the tradesman, Mr. Wilson, states that he was paid "two and thirty" pounds.

This got me thinking about whether stating the larger denominations first is actually more efficient and whether it would be easier to start with smaller denominations. On paper and verbally it is the same amount of work to write or say. You are still stating the same total quantity of numbers and stating the denominations in the same way, hundreds, thousands, etc. However there is a benefit to starting with the smallest that is not compensated for by starting with the largest and that is if you start with the smallest number you don't need to know what the biggest is going to be. To help explain I will use an example; if you needed to read out the number 21427871005 most people would need to count the numbers first to check where they are starting (in this case with twenty-one billion, four hundred and twenty-seven thousand, eight hundred and seventy-one thousand, ). If this were a number starting from smallest and ending with largest however there is no preliminary work required. You can start talking straight away. The exact organisation of saying it would be a little confusing at first and it's probably far too impractical to actually change how to arrange numbers but I found it amusing to consider.

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