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May 03

What’s in a number?

We scientists love numbers…maybe it’s because we liked math when we were kids, or because we understand that putting a number to something is powerful-it allows us to understand the magnitude of something, or to make quantitative comparisons between things.  We can use numbers to calculate the distance to the moon, or compare the number of wolves in different populations across the western U.S. Really, the possibilities are almost endless!

But sometimes numbers can get between our audience and us.  An audience might conceptually understand the difference between a population of 20 wolves and one of 200,  but our intuitive understanding of numbers decreases as the numbers involved get really big, or really small.  Exactly how far is it to the moon, anyway?  (according to NASA, the average distance is ~382,500 km.) 
We can help our audience understand the meaning behind the numbers by using descriptive language that brings the numbers to life.  That moon distance?  For most of us it just falls into the category of “really far away”.  But what if we say that it would take over 235,000 of me (I’m 5’4”) laid out end-to-end to reach the moon?  Better, but that’s still a really large number (and way too many of me).  How about this instead? If a 747 could fly to the moon (play along with me here) it would take 17.5 days to get there.  And I think it takes a long time to fly from Seattle to Boston! Now we’ve gone from “really far away” to “that’s a lot of me” to “17.5”, which is a number most of us easily understand.   Best yet, call it two and a half weeks and be done with it.
A while back I heard a radio segment on KUOW about the extreme size and athletic abilities of Siberian tigers. These are the largest known cats on the planet, and their jumping ability is superb. The speaker, author John Vaillant, described these tigers as able to “jump across your street, or over your basketball hoop.”  Talk about vivid description!  I don’t have to know how high that is in absolute terms to understand that a tiger jumping over a basketball hoop is a serious jump, and I can now picture the scene (and know that I don’t want to meet a Siberian tiger nose to nose!).
What numbers do you use when you give a talk?  How will you bring those numbers to life?  Post your success stories here!

3 comments

  1. Todd W.

    Very good advice about illustrating difficult-to-comprehend numbers and numerical concepts. I just recently saw a talk in which the speaker briefly used some math to illustrate his point. Unfortunately, for laypeople like me, much of it went over my head. I could feel my eyes glazing over a little, try as I might to pay careful attention to what he was saying.

  2. Allison Coffin, PhD, DTM

    Exactly! Complicated equations can interfere with real communication. Hopefully that speaker will read my blog!

  3. Todd W.

    Oh, he already modified his talk, downplaying that particular part a bit, for subsequent presentations.

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