Originally posted January 2nd 2011 as My Grandmother's Photograph Album.
One of the memes endlessly circulating the Sargasso of the internet is
that the living now outnumber the dead. It seems to be based on the
exponential mathematics of the population explosion: if two people have
three children, and if those children each have three children, and so
on, and so on, then in only a few generations it's a mathematical
inevitability that there will be more living descendants than dead
But like too many simple ideas it has a fatal flaw: we tend to
underestimate the numbers of the dead. One calculation, quoted in a debunking article published in the Scientific American,
suggests that around 106 billion people have been born; since only 6
billion are currently alive, 94% of all people ever born are dead. Or
as Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick suggested in their foreword to
the novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, 'Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.'
An inspection of old photograph albums confirms this simple truth. Here
are the dead, in their multitudes. They are dressed in antique
costumes, stand in front of new cars, hold up babies. They are often on
We know so little about them. Many are nameless, now. Yet they wait
patiently for us. They have plenty of time, after all. The universe is
still young: a little less than 14 billion years. Whether it expires
in a Big Crunch or subsides in a long Heat Death, many more billions of
years stretch ahead. We'll all be dead for far longer than our
'Come on in. The water's fine.'