always seemed proposterous to me as a child, almost some sort of personal affront. Even its symbol, borrowed from another and tipped on its side, used to make me laugh. In school I’d speed up the clock by drawing stick figures out of my lazy 8: someone holding a book, someone snoring, two someones in close embrace. (Those were the years when, late at night, we read Henry Miller under a blanket by torchlight.) And finally I decided that my teacher was completely bonkers and set out to prove him wrong: I’d count to the end of the numbers. My mum, a teacher herself, kept us well supplied with large sheets of newsprint. I helped myself to a stack – even at nine or ten I understood that I’d need rather a lot of paper – sharpened my pencil, and embarked on winning the Fields Medal.
It’s been said that I have a stubborn streak, and my children claim I always have to be right. Well, they have to find something to criticise, don’t they? And of course their 89-year-old grandmother likes to exaggerate the stories she tells, which only confirm their misjudgements: the floor was most certainly not buried in pages covered with crabbed and smudged numerals, I’m sure there were only a good half dozen sheets before my fingers gave out. Needless to say, I didn’t win any medals. And I prefer not to think what it indicates about my IQ that I needed visual proof of such a simple mathematical principle, a principle that I only grudgingly accepted in an abstract way when I left off counting: it was still emotionally unsatisfying. We were supposed to be able to control the universe. We were Americans, after all. We pledged our faith every school morning.
Decades later I’m more sanguine about the possibilities of the infinite. Nevertheless there are moments when my old disbelief surfaces. As usual, I was listening to BBC this morning while brewing my coffee, and there happened to be a discussion with futurologists. Every culture needs its oracles, I told myself. Then, with the memory of an all too recent argument with my 15-year-old-daughter still fresh, I decided to do something about the incipient ‘hardening of the cerebral arteries’ she’d mentioned. Admittedly, there’s little more than a weak rhyme to connect futurology with astrology. I began to pay attention. And the first prediction: by the year 2030, there will be another 2 billion people on the planet, bringing the total population to something like 8 billion.
Eight billion. Not an infinity, but close enough to need a lot more than a half-dozen sheets of paper to tally. Wearily I sat down at the table with my mug, and thought that it wouldn’t matter how much I tried to count, I’d never get my head around such a number. I had enough trouble trying to keep track of my family of seven. For which I’d definitely receive no medals.