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Basic science: understanding numbers

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# 1.2 Reflecting on numbers

Figure 1 Without numbers, how would we know how many swimming pools we could fill?

What did you learn from the video in the previous section? What do you remember about it? Did you retain any of the numbers?

Numbers were central to the video, and some numbers were so large that they weren’t easy to visualise. You probably remember something about swimming pools. That was when the narrator said that the worldwide consumption of bottled water was over 155 billion litres per year, and that this was enough to fill 62,000 swimming pools – not that it is much easier to visualise that many swimming pools, nor how much water it would take to fill them!

Why does the video use numbers? Would it be as impressive if the narrator had said we consume a huge amount of bottled water? Or a really huge amount? Or a massively, enormously, colossally titanic amount of bottled water?

Without numbers, we can’t quantify the world. For example, how would you determine if the narrator in a ‘numbers-free’ bottled water video was talking about enough bottled water to fill a single swimming pool, let alone 62,000 swimming pools? Quantifying things is a way to test your experience against others, and to comprehend the world. You don’t have to be a maths wizard who sees numbers when they close their eyes at night to be a good scientist. Working with numbers is about practice, and familiarity with a few basic concepts. It will get easier if you spend time with some simple number-based tasks.

So if you think you’re not good with numbers, quickly answer these questions:

• Did you understand the video ‘Water, water everywhere’?
• Can you follow a recipe to bake a loaf of bread?
• Can you read a thermometer (or more likely, the app on your smartphone)?
• Can you figure out how many bars of chocolate you can buy with the loose change down the back of the sofa?

Did you answer ‘yes’? You’re a natural scientist.