HYDE PARK — A team of mathematicians at the University of Chicago have discovered a new highest number, a new paper reveals. That number, 87382, is nearly 2 higher than the previous highest number, 87381.
This is the latest discovery in a millennia-long quest. In the time of the Greeks, the highest number was thought to be 403. Leonardo da Vinci proved his worth as a thinker early on when he discovered the number 5602. But recent attempts to expand the field of mathematics have slowed. “The field’s been stuck at 87381 for a long time,” said Octavio Dottle, who studies numbers and their big-ness at Princeton University. “This is a tremendous breakthrough. I wouldn’t have predicted this happening in a trillion years.”
Perhaps more surprising than the discovery was its discoverers. 87382 was discovered by three postdoctoral students, none of them experts in the subfield. “This was a complete accident,” said Gretchen Baines, one of the paper’s authors. “We study small numbers like 1 and 2, so none of us had even heard about numbers higher than 4000 or so. One day we were drinking and someone said out of the blue: ‘87832, that’s gotta be the highest number.’ We checked, and it was!”
Especially for laymen, it’s hard to comprehend the scope of this discovery. According to Dottle, 87382 is an unimaginably high number. “Imagine, if you can, five to the seventh power. Huge number, right? We think this number is even bigger. This number is bigger than the number of students that go to Princeton or even MIT. It’s more money than a millionaire earns in a day.”
Baines, for her part, was far more excited about the practical applications of the discovery than its theoretical background. “There are probably billions of people in the world, and we’d love to finally be able to count everyone,” she explained. “I’ve been talking to some friends in the poli-sci department who say that if we finally get the numbers high enough, we can try a cool new thing called ‘democracy.’”
University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, himself a mathematician, congratulated the team on their discovery, adding that he’d already raised the school’s tuition to $87,382, “and if you find anything higher I’ll raise it again!”