I grew up in one of those Judeo-Christian homes that apparently strike terror in the hearts of the likes of Betty Friedan, Alan Grayson and Kathryn Joyce. My parents never had sex until they got married to each other. Theirs is an enduring...

View my complete profile

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Do the Math

A small cardboard box at the foot of my bed triggered my memory last night. It's addressed and ready to go, soon as someone uncovers the packing tape I bought in November.

"What's this doing here?", I thought, "Oh yah, chain letters".

It was fun to run out to the store with my sister and pick out some funky socks. We had a nice time, the two of us, and brought home some yarn to use up on beanies and scarves. It was easy enough to stick the socks in a reclaimed box and add an address. The packing tape- well, that's another story. But the reason I won't be sending the letter on to the next round of push-overs is a simple matter of mathematics.

Dad lay on his back in front of the blazing fireplace. I curled next to him on the rug, my chin cupped in my hands.

"What'd this one say?" He was referring to a letter I'd gotten that afternoon.

I'd seen it before. I began to chant.

"This chain letter was started by six kids in Germany. It began in 1986 and hasn't been broken yet. Please don't break the chain."

He handed me his Texas Instruments calculator. "Run some numbers for me. Sent to six friends, every week, for ten years..."

This was, maybe in 1996.

I'm not going to do all the math again now. But we uncovered all kinds of fun numbers. For starters, the number of letters sent, within one year (if no one broke the chain), was a 2 followed by 37 digits. Wait a minute. How many digits were in the world's population in 1986?

So naturally, we figured out how many times (on average) each person in the world would have dealt with said letter.

We figured out how many times the stack of letters would reach to the moon and back, if each letter was a sixteenth of an inch thick. We figured out how many times the revenue from postage alone could have paid off the national debt. (We did not figure out how many letter carriers it would take to carry the letter times two followed by 37 zeros.)

No need to put a guilt trip on anyone over breaking a chain letter! If everyone dutifully sent on their little letters... well, let's not.

When I moved, the contents of a box hanging from my bunk bed rail were stuffed into a bag, and stowed on a top shelf in a kitchen cupboard. Last week I found this in the bag.

It was probably written in the winter, early in 2008. It had a very long multiplication on the back of it (or as much of the multiplication as would fit on the back of it. The multiplication went on to cover two more sheets of binder paper.

The bag is gone now.


Post a Comment

<< Home