An Exceedingly Curious Guest Blogger
My very favorite part of being part of this blog is getting to know some of the simply incredible people who happen to drop by. Last week, John Governale was here and left an address for some the Exceedingly Curious things that go on over on his web site. Poetry, prose, fantabulous downloads of original music, embroidery patterns from the nineteenth century -- I'm telling you, people, this guy's got it all! (And more.) I begged him the very same day I "met" him to guest blog here and, being a gentleman as well as a scholar, he agreed. I love what he came up with. I know you will, too!
by John Governale
A Texas oil executive tried to buy a four-mile stretch of beach from an old Scotsman. He offered the fellow a million dollars for the ocean-front property, but the Scot refused. The old man scooped up some sand and said that if the oil developer would pay him a British pound for each grain in his hand, he'd sell the entire beach for whatever amount the handful came to.
The oilman looked at the sand the old man was holding. It seemed there must be millions of grains there, so he refused.The Scot laughed, saying the American should have taken the deal because there were only about 10,000 grains in his hand.
That incident was part of the film Local Hero. When I saw it, my reaction was: only 10,000 grains? Though the movie character seemed confident in his claim, the number seemed low to me. I got some sand, dumped it on the kitchen table, and used tweezers, a magnifying glass, and a metal ruler to attempt an estimate.
If I lined up some of the smaller particles, I could get about 70 to an inch. Larger bits came to around 18 an inch. Taking the grains as they came, regardless of size, I was able to line up about 30, so that's the number I went with. Multiplying 30 x 30 gave me 900 grains in a square inch. Multiplying again by 30 gave me 27,000. Already I knew there were more than 10,000 grains in a handful, because there were almost three times that many in a single cubic inch.
I figured the Scot had about a cup of sand in his hand. A quick bit of research revealed that there are 14.4375001 cubic inches in a U.S. cup. Multiplying that number by the number of grains in 1 cubic inch -- that is 14.4375001 x 27,000 -- gave me a whopping 389,813 grains of sand in a cup. Not as many as the oilman feared, but plenty more than the Scotsman claimed.
To be honest, what brought on this interest in sand was not so much Local Hero as a report I had read recently. It said that scientists estimate there are a total of seven sextillion grains of sand on earth. This includes all of the beaches and deserts, as well as the yearly amount dumped on winter roads and driveways.The report pleased me because sextillion is my favorite large number. Some people will raise their eyebrows and say that's because it has the word has sex in it. Well, there's that, but the main reason I like this number is because Walt Whitman used it in his poem, "Leaves of Grass." There you will find this line: A mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels."
A sextillion, by the way, is one followed by 21 zeros.
Just as the miracle of a common field mouse can stagger infidels, the hugeness of a sextillion can stagger the imagination. It's a number so large that if you started counting by billions -- that is, one billion, two billion, three billion, and so on -- and if you started the moment you were born and counted steadily for a hundred years, you wouldn't reach even one percent of it.
Seven sextillion grains of sand on earth. That's a lot of grains. But hold onto your beach towels, we're not done with my favorite number.In 2003, astronomers estimated that in the limited part of the universe that we can see from earth using our best instruments there are about 70 sextillion stars. That's ten times the number of grains of sand on earth.
The next time you are at the beach, scoop up 389,813 grains of sand and watch as you pour them from your hand. You have just held the earthly equivalent of 3,898,130 stars. Now look up and down the beach you are sitting on. Now look up at the sky. I don't know about you, but I'm staggered.
John Governale is the chorister and an assistant in the high priest group in a small ward in Maine. He is married and has five children and two and three-ninths grandchildren, all of whom, except for one and three-ninths, have moved back home, where they are most welcome. A prolific self-publisher with sales often soaring into double digits, John laser-prints and hand-binds his work. Many of his stories, poems, essays, and song lyrics can be read for free at www.mainewriting.com. He is also webmaster of www.poetsontheporch.com, an accomplishment that will insure he is never hired as a web designer. There are a few legitimate writing credits lurking in his portfolio. His account of an incident in the 1991 Gulf War,"Sergeant Mills", was published in Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul, he contributes a weekly column, What I've Learned, to his town's newspaper, and occasionally he is invited to write about business for regional publications. Exceedingly Curious was intended to be of interest and use to Latter-day Saints. There is still hope.