Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Tyranny of Numbers

About a fortnight ago it was announced that the UK economy had shrunk by 0.2%. This set in train all manner of political recriminations, which would have been much muted if the change, however slight, had been positive rather than negative. Yet what is 0.2%? It is equivalent to 2p in every £10, something which many of us would hardly notice. Of course the recession is making a huge difference to many of the poorer of our society, but the reality of the current economic crisis is not contained in any numbers, but in the disproportionate hardship imposed on poorer sections of the population. When someone loses their job, their loss is not 0.2% but 100% of their income.

Numbers alone cannot always convey what we want to say, and may indeed be misleading. In Watership Down the rabbits could only count up to four; any more was simply described as many. As humans we can do rather better. We can count as high as you like, but can we really appreciate these numbers? The ancient Greeks used the same word for ten thousand and for countless, essentially our myriad. When numbers get too large for comfort, we call them astronomical, but there are bigger numbers still and some scientists talk about them quite seriously.

Recently I saw the question being asked “Has the Big Bang pushed God out of the Universe?” I found this strange, for the prima facie answer is NO. The Big Bang is a scientific concept, which indicates an origin of space and time in our universe. One could, therefore, naturally identify the Big Bang with the epoch of creation. To avoid this impasse, possibly implying the existence of a creator, cosmologists have postulated the multiverse, consisting of 10500 separate universes, of which ours is only one. This number is so large that to write it out in full - a 1 with 500 zeroes after it - would fill half this blog! It was Carl Sagan, an avowed atheist, who said that an astronomer without awe must be mad.

Bottom line: fascinating as these discussions are, the Church is more concerned with how the numbers stack up for the ones who struggle every day in this tiny piece of space and time.

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