The bigger the better

16th May 2003 at 01:00
Big Numbers. By Mary and John Gribbin. Illustrated by Ralph Edney and Nicholas Halliday. Wizard Books pound;6.99. Tel: 01763 208 008. Email:

Black holes, lottery statistics and fruit flies are all involved in a big new offering. Carolyn O'Grady reports.

You probably know that your chances of winning the lottery with a single entry are one in 14 million, but did you know that the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 have just as much chance as any other numbers and that there is just the same chance of the numbers that won last week coming up again this week?

If you, or any students you know, thrill to the sound of these kinds of figures then you are going to be excited by Big Numbers, a book for anyone aged 10 and above, featuring a cornucopia of information involving successions of digits, numbers to the power of and a lot of zeros.

But why big numbers as opposed to say, diminutive digits? "Kids love big things. They like extremes and they want to be astounded," says John Gribbin who, together with his wife Mary Gribbin, wrote the book. And it's true that dinosaurs and whales do seem to set more young hearts racing than ants or mice, for example.

But that's not the whole story. Fruit flies, bacteria and atoms also feature in the book. The important thing is that they come in large numbers. Did you know that if all fruit fly eggs hatched into female fruit flies starting with one fly, you would have 500 flies after a week, 250,000 flies after a fortnight, 125,000,000 flies after three weeks and 62,500,000,000 flies after a month?

So is this book of interest only to the mathematical nerd? John Gribbin thinks not. "It's more science than maths-oriented. In fact, it was an excuse to write about a lot of different things."

And the book certainly travels far and wide, taking in dinosaurs, the Gaia concept; black holes, red giants, cloning and - my favourite - heartbeats.

Did you know that during an average lifetime your heart will beat about 1,500,000,000 times, and the same is true for mice, elephants or any other animal? It's just that a mouse's heart beats faster and an elephant's more slowly than ours.

John and Mary Gribbin have built up a solid reputation as popularisers of science for children and adults and work well together. John is a scientist and visiting fellow in astronomy at the University of Sussex, and author of adult books on science. Mary is a former special needs teacher and head of home tuition services for East Sussex county council. She is an author of books for adults and children.

Together the couple have written many books, including What's the Big Idea?: Time and the Universe (Hodder Children's Bookspound;3.99), which won The TES Information Book Award, and Big Numbers was recently on the World Book Day recommended reading list.

Both authors are concerned about the decreasing number of students taking up science and maths in colleges and universities. "The really exciting stuff, such as black holes and quantum physics is often left until university when many young people have given up the subject. They should be taught these exciting bits early", says John.

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