Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How much?

When I were a lad, between the ages of six and nine, it was an article of faith that the biggest number was not just infinity but triple infinity. It was one of those facts passed a

Views of spacetime along the world line of a r...Image via Wikipedia

round the playground regularly by anyone keen to put one over their playmates. There was no better way than asserting your maturity over the little 'uns than by dropping such a deathless fact into a conversation. If nothing else it would stun them into submission - knowing the biggest number you can is pretty much magic as far as an infant is concerned.

My kids are about the age now I was when I was bandying around such facts with abandon. Their world too is filled with similarly accepted items of knowledge. For instance, one of my boys told me today that if you die you become a ghost. When I said that would be bad as there would be no more computer games, he corrected me and said a ghost could get into the computer and play all day. It was kind of hard, not to say cruel, to argue with such conviction.

When I was a nipper I was as ignorant, perhaps more so, than the average kid and had no idea who was the first to assert that "triple infinity" was the biggest number there is. I've a feeling that Peter Reilly told me - he was my best mate and it was the kind of secret knowledge that we were likely to share. We also decided that when we were older we'd share a house and drive Range Rovers.

Now, 35 or so years later, it's finally occurred to me to see if triple infinity is actually a thing and work out how such an idea came to be on the lips of kids in the early 70s. It turns out that triple infinity is a thing but nothing, as far as I can work out, to do with counting. That being one of the main preoccupations of schoolkids of that age.

Hyperbolic Order-3 heptakis heptagonal tilingImage via Wikipedia

Triple infinity looks like it is a concept that can be of use in a wide variety of subjects - geometry, particle phyics, in discussions of the special theory of relativity and others. And that's about as far as my understanding goes.

There are other triple infinities - but I don't think Peter meant any of those.

The unanswered question will be how it got from those abstruse theories into a first school in Yorkshire. Was there something on TV or an older brother or sister studying such things? God only knows.
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