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H. Graden Kirksey

How big is Avogadro’s number? It is a very large number! Although it is known with little

uncertainty – one reference states that it is 6.0221367±36 x 10

23

– it is not known with absolute

accuracy. An uncertainty of ±36 out of 60,221,367 is 6.0 x 10

-5

%. Because Avogadro’s number

is measured indirectly and cannot be counted, there will always be an uncertainty associated with

its determination, but this uncertainty is negligible for our calculations.

The magnitude of Avogadro’s number is beyond comprehension, and the following examples

are employed to show why this is so.

Example 1

Could a person count at the rate of one integer per second from 1 to Avogadro’s number in a

lifetime?

If a person lives 80 years, he or she will have lived 2.5 billion seconds (2.5 x 10

9

s). This

number of seconds is on the order of 100,000,000,000,000 or 10

14

times smaller than Avogadro’s

number!

Now suppose that everyone presently living on earth, 6.6 x 10

9

people, lived for 80 years.

Their combined lifetimes would be only 1.7 x 10

19

s, which is 35,000 times less than Avogadro’s

number of seconds.

Do you think that the number of seconds in the combined lifetimes of all the people who ever

lived on earth would require a number as large as Avogadro’s number?

Example 2

How about the number of sheets of paper in all the books, newspapers, and magazines ever

printed? Is that as large as Avogadro’s number?

An IPS textbook contains about 147 sheets of paper (294 pages) per one centimeter of

thickness. The thickness of an Avogadro’s number of sheets of this paper would be

6.02 x 10

23

sheets

147 sheets / cm

= 4.10 x 10

21

cm = 4.10 x 10

16

km.

To see how large a distance this is, consider the speed of light (3 x 10

8

meters per second or 3

x 10

5

km/sec). The distance light that travels in one year (a light-year) is given by

3 x 10

5

km

s

x 365

days

yr

x 24

hr

day

x 3600

s

hr

= 9 x 10

12

km

yr

.

The time required for light to travel past an Avogadro’s number of pages at this incredible

speed is

4.10 x10

16

km

9 x10

12

km

yr

= 5 x10

3

yr = 5, 000 years .

Would you suppose that the total number of letters and numbers ever printed, typed, and

written on earth would be as large as Avogadro’s number?

Example 3

Is the total number of holes in all the screen wire ever made on earth less than Avogadro’s

number?

The meter was once defined as one ten-millionth of the distance between Earth’s equator and

its poles. Hence the circumference of Earth is approximately 40 million meters and its radius is

about 6.4 x 10

6

meters or 6.4 x 10

9

mm. The area of earth’s surface, 4r

2

, is calculated to be

4 x 3.14 x 6.4 x10

9

mm

( )

2

= 5.1x10

20

mm

2

.

Suppose that the screen material has square holes that measure about 1 mm on a side. This

would mean that it would take a piece of screen wire with 5.1 x 10

20

holes to cover the earth –

still far fewer than an Avogadro’s number!

Example 4

One of the “Themes for Short Essays” on page 190 of the Eighth Edition of IPS invites

students to write a research report entitled “The Number of Sand Grains in a Cup of Sand.” Why

not extend the same idea to find the edge length of a cube containing an Avogadro’s number of

sand grains?

Sand grains have different sizes and shapes. Larger grains in a sample probably have

diameters between 1 and 2 mm, the smaller grains between 0.2 and 1 mm, and many more tiny

grains too small to handle have diameters less than 0.1 mm. To solve this problem, assume that a

representative grain of sand is a cube having edges 0.5 mm or 5 x 10

-4

m long. The volume of a

single grain of sand is then

(5 x 10

-4

m)

3

= 1 x 10

-10

m

3

(to one significant figure).

The volume of a container needed to hold an Avogadro’s number of grains of this size is

(6 x 10

23

grains) x (1 x 10

-10

m

3

/grain) = 6 x 10

13

m

3

.

Since the volume of a cube is found by cubing the length of an edge, the edge length is the

cube root of the volume.

6 x10

13

m

3

3

= 4 x10

4

m = 40km

The container must measure approximately 40 km long by 40 km wide by 40 km high!

Of course, as students discover in IPS 8

th

edition Experiment 1.4, Measuring Volume by

Displacement of Water, the volume occupied by a sample of dry sand is not entirely filled with

sand. A volume of dry sand contains about 60% solid sand while air occupies about 40% of the

space within the sample. This information may be used to find the volume of a cube filled with

dry sand that has Avogadro’s number of grains surrounded by air space.

1m

3

dry sand

0.6m

3

solid sand

x 6 x10

13

m

3

solid sand = 1x10

14

m

3

dry sand

The length of an edge of the cubic container needed to hold this volume is then

1x10

14

m

3

3

= 5 x10

4

m = 50km = 30miles .

.

Do not be misled into thinking that this is the “correct” answer. We have made some

assumptions along the way. Sand grains are not cubes and they are not all the same size, so this

answer is an estimate. Had we assumed that sand grains were twice (x2) as long on an edge, the

volume of a cube holding an Avogadro’s number of them would have been eight times larger

(x2

3

=8) and the edges of the container would have to be twice as long (100 km). We say that

answers like this are good to “an order of magnitude,” which is “10 to the first power,” 10

1

. So,

different people may have answers that differ by 100%, 500%, or even 800%, but they are within

an order of magnitude of each other, which is good enough to answer correctly how big the cube

would be that holds Avogadro’s number of sand grains.

2006, Science Curriculum Inc., Lakewood, Colorado.

Science Curriculum Inc. – publisher of Introductory Physical Science (IPS) and Force, Motion, and Energy (FM&E) – provides this resource

article as a service to teachers. It is not intended for use with students, but may be printed and copied for professional development and/or

adoption purposes provided that all copies are unabridged and give credit to both the author and Science Curriculum Inc.

For a listing of additional resource articles, visit to http://www.sci-ips.com/articles.html.

For more information on Introductory Physical Science or Force, Motion, and Energy, visit www.sci-ips.com.

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