On a cold winter’s day in 1985 when I lived in The-middle-of-nowhere, Illinois (near Kankakee), I decided to go into mural painting as a full-time job and I asked my seven-year-old son, J.P., what I should call my new company. His immediate response was, “Call it Google!”
The word had a certain memorable name-recognition quality, but I asked if he had made it up. “No,” he said, “It’s a real thing. It’s a one with a hundred zeros, the biggest number with a name.”
I checked with his math teacher and was told that there was actually a bigger number, a googleplex, which is a google to the power of ten, larger than the number of atoms in the known universe. So the number was too big to be of much use and was sort of a joke with math geeks.
The “plex” part added a certain technological aura that I found appealing. I could not think of what it might have to do with mural painting, but I’ve never let logic have an undue influence influence over my choices. Googleplex was born.
A few years later I learned that Larry Page and Sergey Brin had started an internet search engine at Stanford in 1998 they called “Google” and that a toy company had also adopted the name. I didn’t feel any litigious righteousness. After all, with a “Googleplex,” I had them outnumbered by a factor of ten!
A few years after that, my then wife, who helped me turn Googleplex into a serious company, came up with the wonderfully after-the-fact explanation that the name implies virtually limitless possibilities, which would cover me if I decided to become a multi-national and diversify into plumbing, war profiteering or aerospace. Would that the limitless quality applied to the company’s profitability.
At some point I learned that in 1938, mathematician Edward Kasner had written out a one with a hundred zeros and had asked his nine-year-old nephew, Milton Sirotta, what he should call such a number. Milton’s response was, “A googol!”
That’s right: Larry, Sergey, the toy company and I all have it spelled wrong!
To add to my dismay, I have learned that computers have necessitated the creation of numbers far larger than a googolplex. I imagine the poor number now sits on the curb of a gutter in some abandoned mathematical neighborhood sharing a bottle in a brown paper bag with his little buddy, the lowly googol, reminiscing about the old days when they were on top and sighing that the world of technology is just moving too fast.