Archive for August 15, 2018

The Be-All, End-All of End-to-End Comparisons

It’s become quite fashionable to use “end to end” comparisons to visually demonstrate just how large or long or vast something is.

  • If all the atoms in your body were laid end to end, they would be able to encircle the Earth over 41 billion times, a length of almost 56 light years. (Trove 42)
  • If you laid the Knicks’ top six big men from end to end, you would get 41 feet and 4 inches of pain, and enough sore necks, feet, knees and ankles to fill a modest orthopedic ward. (New York Times, April 11, 2013)
  • If all of the fiber optic cable in the world were laid end to end, it would encircle the Earth 25,000 times. (NPR)
  • If all the rolls of toilet paper used in the United Kingdom in a year were laid end to end, they would reach further than Mars. (@ThomasCrapperCo)
  • If you laid all the DNA from all your cells side by side, their combined length would be about twice the diameter of the Solar System. (Science Focus)
  • If your blood vessels were laid end to end, they would be over 100,000 miles long for an adult and 60,000 for a child. (Franklin Institute)
  • If you laid all the M&M’s produced in a year end to end, they would stretch for a million miles. (MF4MF)

Though ubiquitous, these comparisons are often unreliable:

I checked with Google to see just how long the [Aleppo] souk actually is, if all its streets were laid end to end, and found it to be, variously, seven, eight, ten, twelve, thirteen, sixteen, and “about 30” kilometres. (Jonathan Raban)

But accuracy be damned. The point of these comparisons is not to demonstrate precise computational ability. Instead, they are meant to provide a reference point for a statistic that would be otherwise difficult to interpret.

If all the players on an NFL team were laid end to end, they’d stretch from the back of one end zone to the opposite goal line.

(This reminds me, for no good reason, of an entry in the Washington Post Style Invitational from some years back, in which entrants were asked to submit bad similes and metaphors: “He was as tall as a 6‑foot, 3‑inch tree.”)

Such end-to-end comparisons are not new, however. According to the Quote Investigator, this type of comparison was used in 1885 to describe the Vanderbilt family’s $200,000,000 fortune:

Enough to buy 40,000,000 barrels of flour at $5 each. If these barrels were placed end to end, they would reach around the Earth on the parallel of Boston, or they would fence in every State in the Union.

Alexander Wolcott, in his 1934 bestseller While Rome Burns, quoted Dorothy Parker as saying:

If all the girls attending [the Yale prom] were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

The most famous of these comparisons, however, is probably the following:

If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.

Who said it? Who knows. It’s most often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but it seems that the quip existed a full decade before Shaw was ever credited. It has also been attributed to Isaac Marcosson, Farmer Brown, Stephen Leacock, and William Baumol. Regardless of its originator, it has been reiterated and modified a thousand times:

  • If the nation’s economists were laid end to end, they would point in all directions. (Arthur H. Motley)
  • If all economists were laid end to end, there would be an orgy of mathematics.
  • If all the economists in the world were laid end to end, it would probably be a good thing.

My favorite end-to-end comparisons, like the one attributed to Shaw, are usually garden-path sentences. They begin with an astounding statistic, but just when you think some simpler comparison will be made, they smack you in the nose with a twist:

  • Just to be clear, if you carefully removed, and laid end to end, all the veins, arteries, and capillaries of your body, you will die. (Neil deGrasse Tyson)
  • If all the world’s managers were laid end to end, it would be an improvement.
  • If you laid all our laws end to end, there would be no end. (Arthur “Bugs” Bae)
  • If all the salmon caught in Canada in one year were laid end to end across the Sahara Desert, the smell would be absolutely awful.
  • If all 206 bones were removed from your body and laid end to end… you’d be dead.
  • If all the cars in the world were laid end to end, someone from California would be stupid enough to try to pass them.
  • If all the joggers were laid end to end, it would be easier to drive to work in the morning. (Milton Berle)
  • If all students who fell asleep in their seats during math class were laid end to end, they’d be a lot more comfortable.

Finally — and with absolutely no bias whatsoever (wink, wink) — I present my all-time favorite end-to-end comparison, gloriously penned by my friend and colleague Gail Englert, and which appears on the back cover of More Jokes 4 Mathy Folks:

If you took all the people who fell on the floor laughing when they read this book and laid them end-to-end, you’d have a very long line of people. It’d be a silly thing to do, but at least you’d know who to avoid at a cocktail party.

Do you have a favorite end-to-end comparison? Have at it in the comments.

August 15, 2018 at 7:35 am 1 comment

About MJ4MF

The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog is an online extension to the book Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. The blog contains jokes submitted by readers, new jokes discovered by the author, details about speaking appearances and workshops, and other random bits of information that might be interesting to the strange folks who like math jokes.

MJ4MF (offline version)

Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks is available from Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, NCTM, Robert D. Reed Publishers, and other purveyors of exceptional literature.

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