How Archimedes Invented the Beast Number

Archimedes Beast Number

The Beast Number – a number so big, that to write it out in full would take more space than there is in the observable universe

Archimedes had become fed up of people saying you couldn’t calculate the number of grains of sand on a beach.

In response to this nonsense (as he saw it) he invented new, enormous numbers. Then he calculated not just how many grains of sand there were on the beach, but how many there were in the universe.

The trouble Archimedes faced was the Greek number system. It was a primitive system in which letters became numbers: A = 1, B = 2, C = 3, etc.

Very large numbers were a problem, because there weren’t enough letters in the alphabet! The Greeks’ biggest number was a myriad, which in the modern, Hindu-Arabic number system, we write as 10,000.

Off with the old…

In The Sand Reckoner, Archimedes demolished the commonly held idea that the number of grains of sand on the shores around his home city of Syracuse could not be calculated.

In fact, he showed that he could produce numbers so large that they were bigger than the number of sand grains in the whole universe.

the sand reckoner

Can you count the sand grains?

His calculation relied on his invention of what we now call exponents (often called powers, or index numbers). For example 104 is ten to the power of four. We usually call this ten thousand. The Greeks would have called it a myriad.

Archimedes’ New Number System

Archimedes introduced a new classification of numbers.

He said that ‘first order’ numbers went up to a myriad myriads, meaning 10,000 x 10,000.

We would write this as 100 million, or 100,000,000, or 108.

Numbers of the ‘second order’ went up to 100 million multiplied by 100 million – i.e. 108 x 108 or (108)2.

Numbers of the third order were those up to 108 x 108 x 108 – i.e. (108)3,

and so on.

Ultimately, Archimedes calculated that to count the number of grains of sand in the universe he needed numbers up to the eighth order, i.e. (108)8 = 1064, which is equal to:


This was the biggest number anyone would need in the universe Archimedes imagined. (By the way, electronic calculators will happily work with numbers as big as this.)

But Archimedes was not content with discovering this huge number. He went on to write numbers that dwarf it.

He moved from ‘orders’ of numbers, to what he called ‘periods.’

Mind Bogglingly Big Numbers

Archimedes said that numbers of the ‘first period’ will be those numbers up to the mind-bogglingly large (108)(108).

This number is much too big for everyday electronic calculators to work with.

mind boggled ape

It could be written as 1 followed by 800 million zeros. If you were to publish this number as a book, the zeros would take up about 380,000 pages. That’s a long book!

Also, given that the number of atoms in the sun is 1 followed by just 57 zeros, you will have to work hard to find anything big enough to need 1 followed by 800 million zeros to describe it.

Archimedes’ Beast Number

However, Archimedes was still not ready to let things rest. He wanted to write even bigger numbers. He continued logically until he reached:


archimedes beast number

Archimedes called this number a myriad-myriad units of the myriad-myriadth order of the myriad-myriadth period. We’ll just call it Archimedes’ Beast Number. It’s one followed by 80 quadrillion zeros.

What could we use this number for practically?

Well, how about writing down the volume of the observable universe in cubic centimeters? Surely that would need a number close to the Beast Number? If we take it that the observable universe has a diameter of 93 billion light years, then…..

nope, the universe’s volume in cubic centimeters ‘only’ needs 35 followed by 85 zeros.

Hmmmmm. We’ll need to try harder.

Most of the universe is pretty much a vacuum. How about filling the universe with air. How many molecules of air would we need to fill the universe to Earth’s air pressure? The number of molecules needed must at least approach the Beast Number, mustn’t it?

Actually, no, we can fill the universe with just 1 followed by 106 zeros molecules of air.

How about the number of bacteria that has ever lived on Earth? Well, again… no, that’s only about 1 followed by 40 or so zeros.


Okay, one last try. Life is based on that well-known molecule, DNA. Given that each different human has different DNA, how many different human beings are possible genetically before we start creating humans with identical genotypes?

As far as we can calculate, the upper limit is believed to be somewhat less than 10106.

That’s a much bigger number than our earlier efforts: it’s 1 followed by a million zeros.

But again, it’s no match for the Beast Number.

Archimedes’ Number utterly dwarfs these huge, but more practical numbers. In fact, the Beast Number is nothing more than a measure of Archimedes’ towering mathematical ambition.

More about Archimedes

p.s. Bigger than the Beast

Before clicking the ‘publish’ button, it came to me that I ought to mention that the Beast Number does not even begin to approach infinity. In fact, it’s no closer to infinity than the number 1 is, because it’s still infinitely far away. No number we can name can get close to infinity.

And remember, the Beast Number is a rational number. The infinity of irrational numbers is even bigger than the infinity of rationals!


Your Genes Programmed by your Ancestors’ Terror


DNA and memory

One of your ancestors had a terrifying experience? New research shows your genes might have a memory of this terrifying experience built into them, and you may fear the same thing happening to you.

This isn’t the way genes should work, is it?

To understand this, we begin with identical twins, who are born with identical genes.

Over time, their bodies and behaviors become increasingly different, more so if they grow up in different environments, having different experiences.

What happens to us in life changes the way our genes behave – this is called gene expression. What you do, what you eat, how you exercise, even the music you listen to alters your gene expression.

There’s no doubt that terrifying experiences also change our gene expression. This is accepted science. The behavior of the genes in our bodies changes with our experiences.

In technical terms, your inbuilt, inherited genes, called your genotype, are influenced by gene expression to determine your phenotype. Your phenotype is YOU – the way you develop, and behave, your internal biochemistry, the way you think, and what you do with your time each day.

It’s already well-known that if one family member has a phobia, then the levels of this phobia among first-degree family members will be much higher than average, by a factor of more than x10.

More recently, scientists have claimed that terrifying experiences do not only affect your phenotype, they actually get built into your genes and can be passed on as an inherited fear to your offspring and generations to come.

Barry Dias and Kerry Ressler from Emory University School of Medicine exposed mice to fearful experiences (electric shocks) while there was a smell of cherry blossom around.

We’d normally expect this would alter the mice’s gene expression, affecting their behavior – their phenotype. We would not expect it would fundamentally change their genotype, their basic genetic code that would be passed on to future generations.

BUT it turns out that the mice’s offspring and the offspring’s offspring were still fearful of the scent, even though they had never smelt it before and had no reason to fear it.

The brains of the parent mice were found to have been changed by their experiences, and the offspring also showed the same changes to their brains.

This is evidence that a parent’s experiences can be written into the parent’s genetic code, then passed on to the children and later generations. If an ancestor of yours had a bad experience, you might also fear that experience, even if you have no reason to fear it from your own experiences.

Your own fears, such an unusual terror of spiders, heights, open spaces, or closed spaces, etc, may come from something that happened to a parent, grandparent, or someone further back in your family tree.

This is a rather extraordinary claim, and does not fit with our current understanding of evolution by natural selection.

It’s a basic tenet of science that the more extraordinary the claim, the higher the level of proof that is required. So don’t go expecting that the evidence from this single study will be enough to change the textbooks. More studies will be required for that to happen.

All the same, it’s very interesting, and science does thrive on interesting new phenomena.

Much more speculatively, the research also raises the possibility that other memories of our ancestors could have been built into their genes and passed on to us.

If this were true, claims of people to have memories of previous lives may need to be revisited… but this really is entering the realms of fantasy, isn’t it?