Big Numbers

When I was in the 4th grade, I discovered that I could work with BIG numbers. I had gotten capable enough with MADS (multiplying, adding, etc.) that I felt confident working with what I thought then were complex computations. I had a small red notebook that I had gotten at a used book sale (with world maps in the back and directions on what to do in case of a nuclear attack!) and in it I recorded my mathematical discoveries. I really latched on to time calculations for a while: how many seconds there are in an hour, in a day, in a week. Then, how many seconds in a year, ten years, a hundred years, a thousand year and beyond. I was proud that I even worked the leap years into my results. I am sure that I calculated lengths of time, in seconds, longer than the universe had existed up to that point. I had no names for the biggest numbers I created: what is the next degree past a quadrillion or a zillion? Part (most?) of the fun was just coming up with numbers so big and unusual.

That was so last century. Big numbers are a yawn now, uninspiring in their day-to-day ubiquity. How many bits and bytes of data are in your phone, much less your home computer—much, much less than, say Google’s cloud? (The word google itself used to be a trivia quiz rarity.) The number of suns in the Milky Way? Hah, a second grader in Lake Forest told me that number just last week. When we were kids, science told us the human body was made of tens of trillions of cells, sure. But now, it’s composed of ten of trillions of cells PLUS tens of trillions of hitchhiking bacteria. Jeff Bezos’ wealth, views of Baby Shark videos, number of jack-o-lanterns at Highwood’s Pumpkin Fest—every number worth trivializing has a bunch of commas embedded in it.

When it comes to child development, as my musings generally do, seeing big numbers related to the subject should come as no surprise. Except they do to me because a) young children are so cute and cuddly and compact—how could they have room for a big number of anything? And b) I have worked with big numbers (see above) and I intuit from experience that ultra-big numbers are built around groupings of lesser, but still very, very big numbers—which only enhance their bigness. When I read that from infancy through toddlerhood (age zero to three), a child’s brain makes and unmakes and remakes many tens of trillions of “connections” (synapses attaching to, and detaching from, neurons), as he or she develops into the person that will live the rest of life as a child, an adolescent, a young/middle/elder adult, that is impressive, but it’s just trillions—I am comfortable with hearing about trillions of things. It’s when I (automatically from habit) start to break those many trillions up into smaller time groups, to fit them in connections per months and weeks and days and hours that the numbers start to stagger me. Because children—your child—look so cute and cuddly and compact, it’s hard to imagine that their brains are a raging inferno of activity. For example, in the span of 365 days, a 0-3-year-old brain adds more than a trillion (1,000,000,000!) neuron/synapse connections. (Note: connections and disconnections happen repeatedly, something on the order of 10-30 trillion connections—30,000,000,000,000!—per year.) That’s around three billion connections in a day, more than a hundred million an hour, close to that in one Music Together® class! Your child’s brain added, rearranged and removed a couple of million connections while you sang “Happy Birthday” to them on their first birthday! Crazy!

It takes a lot of fuel to feed a brain on fire. (Most of an infant’s calorie intake goes straight to that busy brain.) And it takes many, many life experiences to help a child’s brain develop in ways that will be most beneficial. A child’s brain makes and remakes itself based on input/stimuli from the outside world. Even with those gigantic numbers of BBBs (brain building blocks), there is only so much room and a finite amount of wiring that can fit inside a child’s skull, so the infant brain makes choices about what to keep wired and what to drop and replace with new wiring. Your job, parents and caregivers, is to keep your child comfortable, well-fed, and stimulated! Every time you and your child sing through the Flute Collection is another three billion connections!

P.S. In the 5th grade, I switched to composing limericks.