the bigger number

Lucid and fascinating essay from Scott Aaronson:

In an old joke, two noblemen vie to name the bigger number. The first, after ruminating for hours, triumphantly announces "Eighty-three!" The second, mightily impressed, replies "You win."

A biggest number contest is clearly pointless when the contestants take turns. But what if the contestants write down their numbers simultaneously, neither aware of the other’s? To introduce a talk on "Big Numbers," I invite two audience volunteers to try exactly this. I tell them the rules:

You have fifteen seconds. Using standard math notation, English words, or both, name a single whole number—not an infinity—on a blank index card. Be precise enough for any reasonable modern mathematician to determine exactly what number you’ve named, by consulting only your card and, if necessary, the published literature.

So contestants can’t say "the number of sand grains in the Sahara," because sand drifts in and out of the Sahara regularly. Nor can they say "my opponent’s number plus one," or "the biggest number anyone’s ever thought of plus one"—again, these are ill-defined, given what our reasonable mathematician has available. Within the rules, the contestant who names the bigger number wins.

Are you ready? Get set. Go.

via Who Can Name the Bigger Number?.