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The number of things

The number of things

A lady I knew well was warm, well-read and knowledgeable: an all-round sweetheart. Sadly, she also suffered from a far too common affliction. She was a near-total innumerate. She went blank when faced with bank statements. Despite showing her that her investments brought her an income considerably greater than mine, she was convinced she was a pauper.

“I can’t understand all these numbers," she’d say with a helpless smile.

Many of us know about illiteracy, but how many are concerned about widespread innumeracy—the inability to deal easily with numbers? (The mathematician John Allen Paulos made the term famous with his 1989 book, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences.) Think of how often you’ve heard people saying “I hated maths in school." Or “I’m a people person, not a numbers person."

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I’m just wondering, do we as easily talk up our difficulties with words? Have you heard people say, echoing the lady I knew, “I can’t understand all these letters"?

And yet numbers are everywhere, all the time. Whether in the latest budget, or the latest gigantic scam, or the results from the last census: numbers surround us, often with plenty of zeroes attached. If we don’t understand them, we don’t understand their impact. We don’t fully understand issues that affect our lives every day.

But fear not. If you merely leap aboard a number wagon with me, we’ll look more closely at some svelte figures—OK, bad adjective—we’ve heard of lately.

The Commonwealth Games (CWG) mess, remember that? One report quoted an official thus: “The total CWG misappropriation may touch Rs8,000 crore, which is quite huge and alarming." Sure, but how huge? Well, let’s say a CWG scamster was spiriting money away at the rate of one rupee per second, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Pretty rapid misappropriation, I’d say. So how long would he take to fill his pockets with Rs8,000 crore?

The answer: more than 2,500 years. That is, to be done today, this rupee-a-second scamster would have had to start nearly two centuries before the Mauryan Empire.

Puts Rs8,000 crore in perspective, no?

Rolling right along: In February, Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee announced a “provision of Rs164,415 crore" for defence services in this year’s budget. “Needless to say," he continued, “any further requirement for the country’s defence would be met." No doubt this set off the same applause in Parliament that previous ministers have received for statements such as “we will not compromise on national security."

Applause is good, but what does that figure really mean? What is our military costing you and me?

For each Indian man, woman and child—all 1.2 billion of us—we will spend nearly Rs1,400 on defence this year. Compare with the allocation for education Mukherjee also announced: Rs52,057 crore, or about Rs430 for each of us. Break it down like that, and it’s easier to see that not compromising on security costs our Union government over three times as much as the imperative to educate you does.

Or try this. All through 2011, we will spend Rs52,000 per second on defence. Going at that rate, our friend the CWG misappropriater need not have started his spiriting before the Mauryan Empire. Nope: the beginning of this month, less than three weeks ago, would have sufficed, thank you.

And speaking of 1.2 billion of us. That’s a whole lot of us, sure. But how many Indians, really, in terms we can understand?

Suppose you are sitting on a stool at the entrance to Mumbai’s Azad Maidan. Everyone in the country has been asked to file past you into the Maidan and it’s your job to count them. Let’s say you’re 10 times as efficient as the misappropriater: in every second that he spirits away a rupee, 10 Indians pass and you count them. If you started today, you’d be sitting on that stool counting Indians trudging past till June 2015. (Give or take a few bathroom breaks.) That’s how many Indians.

And why are they filing into Azad Maidan? This thought experiment further asks you to imagine building a wall around the ground. The idea is to cram Indians every which way into the resulting enclosure: cheek to fleshy cheek, layer upon bony layer. How high would the wall have to be to accommodate every single person in this country? A metre? Ten metres? Fifty?

The correct answer is—drum roll please—about 3km. There are a lot of us, you know.

And by the time the last Indian—that’s you, finally free of your stool—leaps onto the quivering pile of fellow citizens, we’d have built a structure even taller than Ambani’s Antilla. About 20 times taller, in fact.

And from somewhere inside that quivering pile, you might just hear the lady I knew: “All right, I understand 1.2 billion. Too damned well. Now let me out."

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. A Matter of Numbers will explore the joy of mathematics, with occasional forays into other sciences. Comments are welcome at

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