HOW much rice?

There’s a legend, so well-known that it’s almost a cliche, about the wise man who invented chess. When asked by the great king what reward he wanted, he replied that he’d be satisfied by a chessboard full of rice: one grain on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, doubling each time.

The king, of course, laughed at his modest demands, and told his people to make it so.

His people nervously told the king that actually, that was quite a lot of rice, and if he knew about his Core 2 geometric sequences, he wouldn’t have been so badly duped. After all, $S_n = \frac{ a(1-r^n)}{1-r}$. Here $a=1$, $r=2$ and $n=64$, so that works out to ${2^{64} -1}$, which is 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice altogether.

“Do we have that much rice?” asked the king.

“Well, sire, that’s $1.8\times 10^{19}$ grains, and there are about $3.6 \times 10^{6}$ grains in a tonne.”

“So it’s, what, $0.5 \times 10^{13}$… five trillion tonnes?”

“Very good, sire.”

“Do we have that much rice?”

“I’m afraid not, sire – even looking far into the future, say in the early 21st century, that’ll be roughly the entire worldwide crop for a decade.”


But how much area would that take up?

“One square centimetre of rice,” said the king’s people, “is about ten grains.”

“So 18 quintillion grains needs $1.8 \times 10^{18} \text {cm}^2$?”

“Yes, sire, although we should convert that into more sensible units.”

“Fine. A metre squared is 100… no! 10,000 centimetres squared, which takes us down to $1.8 \times 10^{14} \text{m}^2$.”

“Still a little… unwieldy, sire.”

“Fine. Let’s take it down another million by talking about kilometres squared, so it’s $1.8 \times 10^{8} \text {km}^2.$ Is that a big number?”

“It’s quite big, sire.”

“How big is the world?”

“The world, sire? I don’t have that information to hand – but we can work it out. The world’s circumference is about $4\times 10^{4}$ kilometres, so its radius is that divided by $2\pi$.”

“$6.3\times 10^{3}\text {km}$?” guessed the king, who’d had some Ninja training.1

“Yes, sire. So the surface area is…”

“$4\pi r^2$,” interrupted the king. “$r^2$ is about $4 \times 10^7$, so it’s roughly $5 \times 10^8 \text{km}^2$.”

One day, sire, someone will invent a machine that will answer such questions in an instant.”

“But of course, only a third of the Earth’s surface is land.”

“Correct, sire.”

“Which is $1.7 \times 10^{8} \text{km}$. So the wise man wants enough rice to cover pretty much every landmass on the planet to a depth of one grain. Fine. I think this can be easily solved.”

And the king had the wise man’s head chopped off.

The moral of the story

Nobody likes a smartarse.

* Thanks to Aidan for working this out with me.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008.

He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.

  1. $ 4 ÷ 2\pi \simeq 4 \times \frac {7}{44} = \frac{7}{11} = 0.63$ []


3 comments on “HOW much rice?

  • Darth Vader

    lol, should of double checked before saying yes to the wise man…

  • Darth Vader

    And the wise man should not have been greedy…

  • mark porter

    All this talk of rice is making me hungry. Where’s my curry powder?

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