Wednesday, January 23, 2013

One hundred

I’ve a memory related to numbers from the time I’s a child. I asked my mother if the number 100 was big or not. I had surely recently learned to count to 100. She answered me that it depends, and gave me examples of situations in which 100 of something was a lot and others in which 100 of something was too little. I don’t remember the examples, but they ain’t hard to imagine: 100 lions to hunt are a lot, 100 hairs on a head are too few, 100 empanadas to cook is a lot, 100 grains of rice too few. Etcetera.

I also remember getting mad at her answer. Not mad, really, but I did think it ungraciously dodged the whole point of the question. ’Cause I wasn’t asking for the number 100 in relation with the stuff you can count with it, I was asking for its intrinsic size. Now OF COURSE the number 100 was big. If any number was smaller or greater than another one, then all numbers must have a certain size. Regardless of what stuff you could count with ’em. And the size of 100 was “big,” no doubt.

I see now that actually my mother’s answer made a great deal of sense. No number has an intrinsic size really. What happened was that by that age I didn’t know anything that, coming in hundreds, were too few. Or at least, if I knew it, I never had counted it, ’cause until then I hadn’t known how to count to 100.

And indeed, thinking about it today, I believe what at that moment I interpreted as intrinsic size (though I probably didn’t know what “intrinsic” meant to be honest) was not the number’s size, but the size of the effort needed to count till that number starting from 1. And I also didn’t suspect, I guess, that the effort required to count to 100 was relative too, and depended on who was counting.

So the only answer is there is no answer. And that’s why the question’s so interesting, and it keeps coming back to memory. Because in the end, is the number 100 big or is it not?