The Who, What, When, Where and Why of Chemistry
Chemistry is not a world unto itself. It is woven firmly into the fabric of the rest of the world, and various fields, from literature to archeology, thread their way through the chemist's text.
The isolation of metallic calcium was reported by Humphrey Davy 200 years ago this year. The name comes from the Latin for lime: calx. Compounds of calcium are like duct tape – they hold lots of stuff together. Calcium carbonate keeps clams covered, calcium oxide (lime) is the mortar that held the Roman Colliseum together, and calcium sulfate (plaster of Paris) has been holding broken bones in place for more than a millennium. Calcium keeps us from being a puddle on the floor as well. More than 90% of the body's calcium stores are in the bones.
“Do you know what a nonillion is?” queried my mathematician spouse as he plopped into the chair in front of our household computer, “Is it Latin or something?” “Something to do with nine I’m sure,” I offered from the sofa. “That’s OK, I can google it.” What’s the urgency I wonder? 1 vs. 100 is the issue. The mob won.
So what is a nonillion and does it have anything to do with nine? The short answers are: it depends and yes. Nonillion is a novelty number - a term I just coined for numbers that have names, but no uses. Like a googol. The early British usage of nonillion was for 1054 - nine million millions. Americans used nonillion for 1030 or 103+3x9. In other words, the result of multiplying a thousand (103) by a thousand nine times.
The system of counting by thousands is sometimes called the “short scale” (from the French term echelle courte). The long scale (echelle longue) counts by millions. Most English speaking countries (both the US and UK included) use the short scale, while most of the rest of the world uses a version of the long scale.
It’s hard to get a sense of scale with these enormous numbers, but a nonillion (long scale) is (very) roughly the order of magnitude of the mass of the universe in kilograms. There are roughly 5 nonillion bacteria (short scale) on earth.
Literary trivia: e.e. cummings used nonillion in the Enormous Room and in at least one poem.