Counting Aloud And Other Saucy Things

What's the highest number you've ever counted to?  via Flickr creative commons morebyless

What’s the highest number you’ve ever counted to? via Flickr creative commons morebyless

The best reaction I ever had to telling someone I was a number theorist was “wow, so what’s the highest you’ve ever counted?” Being a number theorist, you can well imagine my response, first lots of laughter, and then “in what increment?”

Counting in increments of 1, I guess the highest I’ve ever counted is probably somewhere around 150. But I just learned a guy named Jeremy Harper holds the world record for the highest number reached while counting aloud, and that number is 1,000,000. It took him 89 days. This is just one of several wonderful mathy facts that I learned this weekend on Vsauce, my new youtube obsession.

The channel is run by Michael Stevens, who seems to be somewhat of a renaissance man and knower of things far and wide. He makes most of his own content, which he calls “videos that feed the curious and illuminate the amazing.”

Something curious and amazing that I learned from my Vsauce video bender this weekend is that if you rank words based on their prevalence in the english language (the top candidates being “the,” “be,” “to,” “a,” “and,” “of,” and “in”) then their rank is inversely proportional to their frequency of usage. Remember, inverse proportion means that they roughly follow y=k/x where y is the number of times used, x is the rank, and k is some constant. This means that if you take any word in the english language, as long as you know its rank, you can figure out approximately how many times it should appear in a large sample of text. This phenomenon is called Zipf’s Law, and as Steven explains in his video The Zipf Mystery, it’s actually not as crazy as it sounds at first.

With high probability, Stevens looks like a psychic to someone watching this video.

With high probability, Stevens looks like a psychic to someone watching this video.

His most recent video is called Math Magic and it reveals some of the mathematics behind magic “tricks.” The video is pretty light on actual math, but nevertheless, it’s a reminder of how easy it is to totally look like a psychic if you just use statistics in your favor. For example, he asks you, the viewer, to guess three cards in a row from a 52 card deck and then he point out that with the upwards of 1 million views his video has had, he probably just boggled the minds of at least 7 people. I could imagine a trick like this going over really well in an intro probability course.

Stevens has a good sense for the curious things in the universe and maintains a twitter feed which is a well-curated collection curio for the mathematically minded.

What’s the highest you’ve ever counted? Let me know on Twitter @extremefriday.

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One Response to Counting Aloud And Other Saucy Things

  1. Donald Hackler says:

    When I was in third grade, I methodically counted from one to three thousand (in increments of one), on a dare from a classmate. What I most remember about the experience is my teacher, possibly concerned for my sanity, asking for the highest number I could imagine. My honest (though less than diplomatically phrased) response was that it was a silly question, because I could always add one and get a bigger number.

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