Oddly Specific Numbers

256 Last week a story appeared on tech news about WhatsApp increasing the max size of their group chats to 256 people. The reporter noted that they weren’t sure why WhatsApp went with such an “oddly specific number”.

This was delightful for me to see as a programmer. Though I don’t know the exact details of WhatsApp’s decision, I do instantly recognize the number. It’s a power of two, specifically, 2⁸, and the highest number you can store in 8 binary digits (or a byte) of information on a computer. Technically, you can only represent up to 255, which is 11111111 in binary, but since you can also represent 0, you can represent any one of 256 different numbers in one byte.

Sometime it’s cool to look at a world you’re deeply entrenched in from outside, and a comment like that instantly puts you in that place. It’s also cool to see it from the other side as well. I love hearing the stories of oddly specific numbers in worlds that I’m not a part of myself.

I remember this one moment in particular that happened a couple years ago. A physicist had been working for decades on a theory, and unbeknownst to him, some researchers had finally produced some evidence that could prove the theory. One such researcher came to his house to let him know. All the researcher had to do was say a number or two and the expression that washes over the physicist’s face is priceless.

It’s fascinating how different numbers become so important to different people. If you have any stories of particular numbers that mean so much to you and your work, considering telling the story of your number.

[1] If we had decided from the beginning to communicate numbers in binary, rather than decimal, then 300 (100101100) would be an oddly specific number, not 256 (100000000)!

Lover of all things computational

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