Understanding Large Numbers: John Green on Drawing Circles

Speaking of large numbers (see previous posts What is Millions, Human Billions, and Math In Retirement), check out this video of John Green talking about his long term project to draw 170,000 circles. 

Green says he’s drawing circles to “understand what 170,000” actually means. 

He doesn’t say why he picked 170,000, but the week he posted the video, the US just crossed the 170,000 mark on COVID-19 deaths. 

Today, the number is 219,000. That’s 49,000 more circles to draw.

 “Humans in general have a notoriously difficult time distinguishing among large numbers,” Green says. Drawing circles is one way to contextualize large numbers. 

“Humans in general have a notoriously difficult time distinguishing among large numbers.”

John Green

Green’s video inspired me to draw some circles of my own. 

He’s right–the repetition is very calm and soothing. It requires me to pay a “particular kind of attention.”

With no expectation for a productive outcome, I find the images that evolve surprising and fun.

Green makes a point that there’s never a perfect circle, no matter how many copies we make.

Artists Austin Kleon and Lynda Barry write about how copying is an important process for an artist to develop her voice. Our originality comes through in the imperfections.  This has been a very freeing notion for me as I develop my blogging practice.


John Green is an American author (The Fault in Our Stars, Looking for Alaska, Turtles All the Way Down) and the producer of the genius Youtube series, Crash Course in History.

Austin Kleon is a writer who draws. He is the author of Steal Like An Artist and the blog where I first heard about John Green’s Drawing Circles video.


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