Lost in cyberspace

There are more possible moves on a chess board than there are neutrons in our universe, I once read in a chess encyclopedia. I recently asked a University of Chicago mathematician whether that could still be true, now that we know there are hundreds of billions more galaxies than we had thought, each with hundreds of billions of stars. He calculated a bit and said yes. I replied, “In other words, an infinite number!” He backed off in horror: “No, not infinite. That’s for the divinity school; in math we’d simply call it a large number.”

I think about that kind of quantification when I hear of the possibilities of very large numbers in cyberspace—which I learned recently is not a space at all. Like Pascal and Kant staring at the starry skies, I contemplate these possibilities and find us humans to be small indeed, mere reeds, though—as Pascal would have it—“thinking reeds.”


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