Return to Main Page

The Quest for Googolplex

Once upon a time, I decided to write down the number googolplex. Everyone told me it couldn’t be done. But I didn’t let that discourage me. I realized from the start that this task would not be easy to surmount, yet I was determined to accomplish my objective.

I started one summer day furtively scribbling on several pieces of scrap paper, but by the end of the day, it was clear other methods would have to be implemented. The next morning, I ordered 10,000 sheets of paper, figuring it would be more than enough. I thought I might even be able to write it twice. Knowing this would require a substantial amount of pencil lead, I also sent for 100 mechanical pencils. Spending the better part of a month in my apartment writing zeros on 8.5” by 11” pieces of paper, I soon lost contact with all my friends, who thought I was mad. I thought, I’ll show them. I’ll be the first person in history to write out googolplex on paper. I’ll be a big celebrity, and they’ll be the waiters at my table.

At the end of the month, it was plain to see my current stationery supplies were inadequate. Then one day, while writing zeros (what else would I be doing?), I had an epiphany. I’ll use larger paper! Elated by my own genius, I ran to the office supply store and bought everything they had in stock. After much counting, I determined I had about 23,740 sheets of 16” by 12” paper. Having developed my technique to the point of writing about 100,000 zeros in a single day, I spent the majority of autumn sitting at my desk. One day, I looked up and saw that my abundance of paper was not so abundant anymore. I then determined that I needed some other way of making zeros.

I soon purchased a typewriter and got back to work, but I found that hitting one key repeatedly is rather boring compared to writing by hand. To combat this boredom, I designed a simple machine made from blender and vacuum cleaner parts that would strike the key over and over. This got me thinking: if I could take breaks while having something else write the zeros, perhaps I could find a machine that would write large numbers of zeros while being left alone for hours. I found salvation in a relatively new device (well, new to me) called the “personal computer”. Having never heard of this technology before, I was understandably wary, but after seeing how many zeros the attached printing device could produce, I was ecstatic. The one I settled on had a fast, black-and-white “laser printer” that could print 12 pages per minute. Actually, to be more accurate, it was “printers”, because I bought fifteen and daisy-chained them together. That’s 180 pages per minute, 10,800 pages per hour, and 24,105,600 zph.

Cramming fifteen printers into a small apartment was quite a task, and some of my other belongings simply had to go. I threw out my couch, table, television, bookshelf, and dresser, and there still was barely enough room to fit a bed. I thought, hey, who needs all that junk anyway? Powering the printers was another issue. I only had one outlet in each room, so I was forced to buy several power strips to accommodate the plethora of printers. Then there was the problem of the people in the apartment below mine. Fifteen printers running simultaneously at all hours of the day and night can be quite loud, and my downstairs neighbors seemed to be light sleepers. I had no trouble adjusting to the noise, however.

At some point during all of this, I happened to win the state lottery. It was just like any other week, I entered the numbers “10, 00, 00, 00, 00, 00”, and turned in my ticket form. Then, to my utter surprise, the balls came up with my numbers. I won about 14 million dollars after taxes, but rather than squander it on fancy living, I decided to use the money for a more noble purpose. I hired an agent to set up a side business to generate revenue, but it was all for my envisioned warehouse filled with printers. The side business was quantum-this or electro-that, or some nonsense, but all I was concerned about was the fact that it made more money, and thus, more zeros. My agent handled all that stuff, anyway.

Sometime in the next year, whatever technology my fronting company provided became really popular, and I suddenly became very, very wealthy. I saw other billionaires wasting their time at golf courses and spas, or aboard private yachts, but I pursued my goal with more zeal that ever. One day, I walked into the main printing room to find that everything had been removed: all the desks, chairs, computers, and printers. Horrified, I went to my agent, who shall remain nameless, and asked him what had happened. He told me not to worry, and that a new technology had been invented that would render printers obsolete. It was something about atomic re-arrangement, but I can’t explain it; I’m not really a technology person. All I got out of my agent was that you put stuff in one end, and paper with zeros on it comes out the other. There was also something about a “black whole” or something like that. I didn’t ask about that, because anything with a name like that, I’d rather not know about. It all sounded rather evil and mysterious, but the thing looked reliable enough.

To test out the machine, we threw several chairs and tables in. Out came a long ribbon of plastic paper full of tiny zeros. Alright!, I thought, finally something that can make absurd numbers of zeros. Once this thing was up and running, it was simply a question of having things to put into it. My staff and I threw in everything from furniture, to rocks and dirt, to food, to scrap metal. I even tried to trick the machine once by putting in some paper with zeros already on it. Nothing unusual happened, just the normal zeroed paper out the back, and I was a bit disappointed. Once, though, a stray cat accidentally fell into the machine, and several of the workers cried. I had to inform them that the cat died for a grand cause, but they didn’t seem to understand. Ah, well, people are strange.

My agent informed me several years (and many trillions of zeros) later that it was becoming increasingly difficult to find things to put into the machine, and even harder to find places to store the paper that came out the other end. He suggested that we build a larger version of the machine and put it into outer space, where, he assured me, there was plenty of material and even more storage volume. I agreed, and after a few anxious months, the ship was completed. Upon seeing the S.S. Googolplex, as I had named it, I was agape. It was massive, like a skyscraper, with a huge funnel-shaped front and a flattened back. The launch date was set, and all preparations were made. I didn’t really have anyone to say goodbye to, except my agent. I did insist on being captain of the ship, though I knew nothing of how to pilot it. That is what my crew was for.

The feeling of huge engines pushing you further and further from the earth is a scary one. I was terrified at first, but as we planed out, I became accustomed to the lack of gravity associated with outer space travel. We first tested out the new, improved, and highly mobile machine on some small asteroids, with excellent results. I watched the hundred-foot-wide chunk of rock disintegrate as it neared the front end of the ship, and ran to the back window of the bridge to see what came out the other side. What happened next was simply amazing. A sheet of super-thin plastic-looking material with tiny zeros (they were impossible to see until we brought a piece of the “paper” onboard) all over it came spewing out the flat, back end of my glorious ship. The paper must have been at least 250 feet wide, and probably near fifteen miles long, though it bunched up immediately upon creation. And this was just one little asteroid! Oh, the possibilities!

Instead of chasing down small asteroids, it was concluded that we could be most efficient if flying at extremely high speeds through a “nebula” or something. I don’t really know what a nebula is, but since the graph they showed me seemed to point to this approach giving the best results (i.e., the most zeros), I agreed. The nebula (or whatever it was called) was actually quite beautiful from far away, but when we neared it (measured in some other unfamiliar term: light years), it seemed to vanish completely. I was informed that this was due to the extreme dispersion of the particles. I didn’t quite understand the rest, and we continued on our way, spreading zeros across the sky.

Of noteworthiness is the fate of one of my crew. He was outside the ship, making some routine repairs, when he seemed to go berserk and cut the hose that tied him to the ship. He had cut off all radio contact, and refused to return to the ship. We had a schedule to keep, so instead of leaving him out in space, I did the only humane thing I could: I turned the ship around, and down the funnel he went. A short section of paper came out the back, replete with zeros. Don’t condemn my actions; he was a traitor (I will explain this in a moment), and at least he didn’t have to suffocate slowly, alone in space. Upon examining his journals, it was found that he had become rather disenchanted with our mission, to the point of madness, and was planning to sabotage it. It would appear that he couldn’t bring himself to follow through with his plan, and wished his own death. But I wasn’t about to let some potential zeros get away, so don’t blame me. You have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet.

My crew mutinied in the fourth year of our voyage, perhaps as a result of the events in the preceding year concerning said crew member and journal, and also perhaps because the food and water quality was starting to decline. I was taken captive by the disloyal group, and was notified we would be returning to earth where I would stand trial for my actions. As it turned out, upon arriving on earth another four years later, the “crime” was forgotten, and the charges were never pursued.

What I thought had been an eight-year journey in space ended up being more like twenty-two or twenty-three years on earth. This was due to something called “time compression”. Don’t even ask me how it works, because I haven’t the slightest clue. The point is that I still felt horribly far from chasing down the elusive googolplex, and to make matters worse, I could no longer locate the original paper with the “1” on it. This was arguably the most important number, besides the final zero.

After months of searching records and libraries, I found that the building I had lived in had been demolished. Finally, digging around some ancient record book, I located what I concluded to be the original paper. It was in the possession of my former agent, now a rich millionaire living the good life in California. He had seemingly liquidated my company, and run off with the profits. I visited him, and kindly asked for the paper, but he had security take me away like I was some kind of deranged madman.

I just had to have that paper, so I decided to break into his house. I snuck in through an unguarded window, smashing it with a bat. I located the paper in a glass case on display, but when I smashed this case, an alarm sounded. Clutching the paper to me, I fled from the house. Thanks to some new devices made in my absence, I was easily caught by the police and sentenced to a short prison term. Right about then, some crew members of my old ship decided to come forward and speak their piece. I got a life sentence for the “murder” of my crew member.

My former agent, and current arch-nemesis allowed me to keep the original paper, but I was not permitted access to the things I needed to create more zeros. So I went back to old habits. My prison cell is covered in layer upon layer of zeros, and I request subscriptions to every magazine simply to have more space to write the zeros on. Occasionally, I wake up to find that I have scrawled a zero into the wall of my cell, smearing the ink that already covers it. I still am extremely far from my original ambition of writing down googolplex, but I think I can be happy with however many zeros I create in my lifetime.


Trivia: The number googol is 10100, or a 1 followed by 100 zeros. The number googolplex is 10googol, or a 1 followed by a googol zeros. It has been determined that there are less atoms in the entire universe than 10100, so it is thoroughly impossible to write down 10100 zeros. It is generally accepted that there are about 1080 atoms in the universe, so if you could write a zero using one atom, you would still be short by a factor of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 (read “one hundred quintillion”).