Biggest error ever

This New York Times column contains what is no doubt the biggest (in magnitude, if not in importance) numerical error ever to appear in print, and it’s in a quote by a physicist:

For instance, if all the molecules of air in the room where you're sitting would suddenly cross to one side, you would not have any air to breathe. This probability is not zero. It is in the 10 to the minus-25 range.

10-25? It’s more like 10-1000000000000000000000000000 (unless you’re in a room that contains only about 80 air molecules, in which case you’re in trouble anyway). I wonder if a number in a reputable publication has ever been wrong by this large a factor before.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

One thought on “Biggest error ever”

  1. That’s funny that you caught this, Ted. There’s obviously something in physicists’ training that leads us to notice numbers that are wrong by orders of magnitude. Two of the last three times I wrote to a newspaper were to correct errors involving numbers that were way off. (One was a cost estimate relating to Iraq that was given as millions instead of billions, the other was for the distance covered in the Tour de France which would have implied Lance Armstrong biking at speeds more typical of NASCAR.) I suppose this is one of the fringe benefits of a background in physics: a B.S. detector that works quantitatively as well. 🙂

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