Posts Tagged With: Terry Pratchett

Happy Birthday Terry Pratchett (and the Discworld)!

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Happy Birthday to Terry Pratchett, who turns 65 today. Before the advent of JK Rowling and Harry Potter, Terry was the singlemost bestselling living author in the UK, and is the only author to have gotten a map into the number one bestseller slot. Despite suffering from a rare form of Alzheimers that leaves him unable to type, Terry continues to produce novels via dictation and word-recognition software, and recently started a collaborative series of novels with Steven Baxter.

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April also marks the 30th anniversary of his best known works, the Discworld series, set on a flat world which sails through space on the back of a giant turtle. What started as a gentle parody of traditionally fantasy works like Fitz Leiber and Robert E Howard has, over the years, become more of a mirror to our own world, and the humour has only gotten better and better. The fortieth book in the series (yes, that’s four-zero) is due out later this year.

Many happy returns to Terry and the Disc!

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Fun with numbers

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How many books are there in the world? A better question might be ‘How many possible books can be written?’

For the purposes of this experiment, we’ll stick to the English language. We’ll also assume the average length of the books in question is about 100,000 words, a typical novel. If we take all 26 letters in the alphabet (and include a 27th for spaces between them), how many combinations of 100,000 word books is that?

The approximate answer (forgive me for rounding up) is 10860,000. That’s a one with eight hundred and sixty thousand zeroes after it. That’s a lot of reading. Were I to type it out, the number alone would be about 40,000 times larger than this entire post. It w0uld be larger than one of the novels we’re talking about.

Except of course, we wouldn’t be reading most of those, because there’s going to be a lot of them filled with words like ‘zqjkfd’, ‘aerjsho’, and ‘vvvx’. So let’s narrow it down a little, and only have books with actual English words in them. This reduces the number dramatically, to a mere 10400,000, a mere four hundred thousand zeroes following that one. Still plenty to be reading over the weekend.

We’d still have the problem that most of the sentences in these books are going to read like ‘Superb apex visigoth wombat’. So let’s narrow it down further, and just allow books that make actual grammatical sense.

Even if we do this, however, we end up with an alarming figure with far too many zeroes after it. If we were to take all these possible, comprehensible books, and print them in the typical mass-market paperback format, they would actually fill a volume larger than the limits of the visible universe (which, last time anyone checked, is around 47 billion light years across).

And this is why we never have enough space on our bookshelves.

(Adapted from and with thanks to Terry Pratchett‘s Science of Discworld)

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