sagan's number

Happy Birthday Carl Sagan!!!

Few people are as connected with a number as thoroughly as Carl Sagan is connected with the word billion.  The word (and concept) of billion is relatively new to human thought.  Sure the Ancient Greeks were predicting and naming numbers far larger than a billion, but in popular use the concepts of million and billion are relatively new to human history. A billion was just a really big number-very hard to imagine in real terms, an abstract notion that for most meant something like ‘too much to count’.  Etymologically, billion is a fabrication, a 15th century combination of the prefix bi- and the word million, itself a modern word.  Coming to English in the 1680s, from French mathematician Nicolas Chuquet who named a million million a byllion in his unpublished work Le Triparty en la Science des Nombres from 1484.  In England and Germany numbers were compiled in groups of sixes, later altered by the French into groups of three and becoming a thousand million, which is its current US meaning.  Chuquet was interested in naming huge numbers and devised the system of grouping by sixes, summarizing it this way starting with:

million, the second mark byllion, the third mark tryllion, the fourth quadrillion, the fifth quyillion, the sixth sixlion, the seventh septyllion, the eighth ottyllion, the ninth nonyllion and so on with others as far as you wish to go…

Carl Sagan made the notion and number both popular and accessible describing the size of the universe and the number of stars and galaxies in it.  Although famous for the phrase ’billions and billions’, it wasn’t a phrase that Sagan had used by the time he became both known and parodied for it.  He later embraced it as a calling card, opening speeches and presentations with his signature ‘quote’.  A billion can be visualized as a cube of marbles 1000 marbles high 1000 marbles wide and 1000 marbles deep.  This cube would be approximately 40 feet to a side-and weigh many many tons.  

On October 31, 2011 the world population was estimated to have reached 7 billion, adding one billion people in just 42 years.

letter for a friend, two dreams away & increasing

every field is remembered beneath
the first bloom we witnessed.
adolescent bodies twisting through
unconscious hours in the front of my
volkswagen, shattered with glass in
the shape of one-term presidents b/w
my teeth the year after, all the hurt
inside my chest validated by
oncoming traffic. now the apartment
is empty. the parking lot where we
promised to open the recording studio.
the past’s idea of the future, asleep
forever in the meadow.

in my head some distances are impossible.
here to proxima centari
& all of sagan’s other children
numbers so large they just mean “beautiful.”
& that’s how i’ve thought of you
without really intending to,
a celestial phenomena i’ve known since i was
a child, privileged to see through a reflection.
now beside you here, three feet across a table,
i realize some dreams are real when you wake up,
most borders are just lines on a map,
i could tell you anything & somehow
it would feel natural.

though the spring stays underground
& only myths of fresh water reach the surface.
i told you that i wanted to leave this body
but stopped before i got to the why.
i want to be a lake in a summer town in maine,
all clear water, so you could look inside &
maybe tell me where there’s something worth saving.
lithe skinned boys diving in, late august. i let them
punch & kick to stay afloat
without bluing over w/ bruises
one or two might stay in long enough,
i could teach them to be kind,
leach out any parts that might hurt you.

i want to be a oak tree in a public park,
throw shade down to split the sting of ultraviolet.
gentle without asking for recognition,
a firm shoulder you could climb
to help kiss the edge of the sky,
retreat into the private world of
nesting passerines, spanish moss,
when home got messy & frightening.
an apple that will be consumed on your commute,
but does some good in that time, has a use.
a mist rising over the interstate, 5 am, too early
for anything but long-distance driving.
no asymmetries betrayed in the mirror,
just a friend you’ve known but never spoken to
the kind of affection that lays large & light & implicit.

i want to tell you these things but i don’t know
how to take all that matters from
the lone corners of my head &
fit it into a conversation.
the kindness you’ve shown to flaws in my physics
means more that i can encode in
hand gestures, dinner discussion.
i love you. i hope that’s obvious,
without being mentioned.