But What Does That Mean?
In Friday’s Google Doodle, Google celebrates its own 21st birthday. Google is old enough to drink, but what is a “google”, anyway? It’s a very, very large number:
That’s a one, followed by a hundred zeroes, which is what you get if you multiply ten times ten and keep multiplying by ten until you’ve done it a hundred times. In scientific notation, the mathematical shorthand for dealing with staggeringly large numbers, a googol is written 10100. To give you a sense of how big a googol is, it’s about 20 orders of magnitude bigger than the number of subatomic particles in the universe, which is “only” 1080. It’s also about the lifespan of a supermassive black hole like the one at the center of our galaxy.
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin borrowed the term for their company in 1998, to suggest the unfathomably large number of results their new search engine could provide. Page and Brin were obviously exaggerating a bit, and they also took a bit of poetic license with the spelling.
And if you’ve always Google’s name sounded like a nonsense word made up by a small child, that’s because it actually was: then-nine-year-old Milton Sirotta, whose mathematician uncle Edward Kasner asked him to pin a name on the enormous number for a book Kasner was working on: Mathematics and the Imagination, published in 1940. Kasner died in 1955, and his nephew Sirotta died in 1981, 17 years too early to see the word he’d invented become the name of a California startup that grew into the 17th largest company in the world (under the umbrella of Alphabet).
Kasner’s great-niece told the Baltimore Sun in 2004 that she wasn’t sure what her uncle would think about Google’s use of the word. “Obviously it’s only brought attention to the name; it hasn’t brought attention to his work, so I’m not quite certain what he’d think,” she said. “They’re not using the concepts, but just capitalizing on the name.” She added that she had written to the company in 1998 to introduce herself and the family, but received no response.
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