»  The Straggler, No. 48

November 6th, 2006

  Numbering the Nation


When Mr. Johnson felt his fancy, or fancied he felt it, disordered, his constant recurrence was to the study of arithmetic, and one day that he was totally confined to his chamber, and I inquired what he had been doing to divert himself, he showed me a calculation which I could scarce be made to understand, so vast was the plan of it, and so very intricate were the figures: no other, indeed, than that the national debt, computing it at one hundred and eighty millions sterling, would, if converted into silver, serve to make a meridian of that metal, I forgot how broad, for the globe of the whole earth, the real globe.
                    — Mrs. Thrale's Anecdotes

Just so with the humble Straggler. If the Census Bureau is to be believed, the resident population of these United States has just passed through the 300 million mark. Reading of this, my fancy became disordered, driving me to seek refuge in arithmetic. Here I shall try to reconstruct my train of thought.

There seems to be no mood of national rejoicing for this demographic milestone, as there was back in 1967 when the "census clock" in the Commerce Department registered 200 million. On that occasion, a crowd in the lobby of the building broke into cheers and applause, and Lyndon Johnson made a celebratory speech.

What was not to like? The Americans of 1967 believed their nation to be a good one, so that the more populous she became, the better for humanity. They did not worry about "diversity," separation, and social discord between groups. Why should they? There were only two distinct groups of any numerical consequence: white Americans at 88.6 percent of the population and Negroes at 10.5 percent (on the 1960 census figures). The number for white Americans was actually an advance of eight percent on the 1790 figure, when almost one in five of the inhabitants of the Thirteen Colonies was black. In any case, when the two hundred millionth American showed up, the Civil Rights revolution was under way. Everyone knew that once legal disabilities against them had been swept aside, black Americans would merge peacefully into the general mass of citizens, and race would soon be of interest only to the manufacturers of cosmetic products. We should be a single harmonious nation, marching forward to a radiant future, our alabaster cities gleaming in the sun, our numbers ever swelling!

We have lost a great deal of innocence since 1967, become wiser and more thoughtful. We are less trustful of government and its statistics, too. Is the Census Bureau to be believed? There are demographers who think not. There is, for instance, Virginia Abernethy, Professor Emerita of anthropology at Vanderbilt University. Prof. Abernathy believes that the three hundred million mark was actually passed six years ago, and that present population is about 327 million. She has published a paper to make her argument. She also questions the estimates of future population put out by the feds. The Census Bureau currently anticipates a U.S. population of 600 million at the end of this century. That, notes Prof. Abernathy, is already 100 million greater than the 1994 estimate. She thinks the true end-century number might be over 800 million. Who knows? As the late Senator Everett Dirksen would have said: "A hundred million here, a hundred million there, pretty soon you're talking real population."

Let us give our Census Bureau the benefit of the doubt and assume that the 300 millionth resident has indeed just shown up. Let us also set aside the rancorous arguments about whether 300 million is a good number or a bad number, a number to be praised or cursed. Let us, like the great Dr. Johnson, soothe ourselves with arithmetic. What kind of number is it, this 300 million?

Back in my schoolteaching days, I took great pleasure in making visual aids for my pupils. Finding myself at one school in charge of a class of 12-year-old boys, I decided that they needed to see a million of something. To give them that something, I cut up a few pages from a pad of metric graph paper ruled in millimeters. A million square millimeters occupy a square one meter — just over a yard — on a side. Pasting a dozen or so pages of graph paper onto a makeshift cardboard backing did the trick very nicely. My million-square display also made for a nice learning-through-punishment opportunity: class malefactors were set to placing neat dots into squares, under the ultimate threat, which I think some of them actually believed, that all million squares might be assigned as penalty for some really serious offense.

To extend that particular display to 300 million would require covering all the walls of half a dozen fair-sized classrooms with graph paper Faced with difficulties of this sort, the nimble mathematician just goes up a dimension. The cube root of 300 million being around 670, you could get 300 million grains of household salt into a cubic box eight inches on a side, though of course you wouldn't be able to see more than a few hundred thousand of the little devils.

If you were to pack actual human beings instead of salt grains, a cubic crate just 733 yards on a side would offer a roomy cubicle 6 ft by 3 ft by 2 ft to each of the 300 million. We are not really talking about a big crate there — it would be lost in the Grand Canyon. Replacing each human being by an identically-sized replica made of peanut butter (the creamy, not the crunchy, sort) and spreading us evenly over the territory of the 48 contiguous states, our aggregate volume of 26 million cubic yards would spread as a layer only one ten-thousandth of an inch thick, fifty times thinner than a sheet of paper.

Passing from volume to area, if we were all skinned, and our skins — suitably cured, one hopes — were stitched together to make a quilt, it would just fit within the city limits of Tucson, Arizona. Switching now to linear, our aggregate length runs to over a quarter million miles. Laid out head to toe along the 12,108-mile perimeter of the 48 states, we'd be stacked twenty deep. We'd be a tad more comfortable laid out along the 47,000 miles of the interstate highway system, stacked only five deep. Our alimentary tracts, removed from our bodies and stretched out …