Every so often, I’ll informally teach a class of gifted elementary-school students. I greatly enjoy interacting with them, and I especially enjoy the questions they pose. Often these children pose questions that no one else will think about, and answering these questions requires a surprisingly depth of mathematical knowledge.
Here’s a question I once received:
If the pattern goes on, and if , what is ?
I leave a thought bubble in case you’d like to think this. (This is significantly more complicated to do mentally than the question posed in yesterday’s post.) One way of answering this question appears after the bubble.
Let’s calculate the first few terms to try to find a pattern:
Written another way,
Naturally, elementary school students have no prior knowledge of the factorial function. That said, there’s absolutely no reason why a gifted elementary school student can’t know about the factorial function, as it only consists of repeated multiplication.
Continuing the pattern, we see that . Using a calculator, we find .
If you try plugging that number into your calculator, you’ll probably get an error. Fortunately, we can use logarithms to approximate the answer. Since , we have
Plugging into a calculator, we find that
We conclude that the answer has more than 121 septillion digits.
How big is this number? if were printed using a microscopic font that placed 100,000 digits on a single line and 100,000 lines on a page, it would take 12.14 quadrillion pieces of paper to write down the answer (6.07 quadrillion if printed double-sided). If a case with 2500 sheets of paper costs $100, the cost of the paper would be $484 trillion ($242 trillion if double-sided), dwarfing the size of the US national debt (at least for now). Indeed, the United States government takes in about $3 trillion in revenue per year. At that rate, it would take the country about 160 years to raise enough money to pay for the paper (80 years if double-sided).
And that doesn’t even count the cost of the ink or the printers that would be worn out by printing the answer!