Dictionary of Numbers: browser extension humanizes the numbers on the Web

Dictionary of Numbers is a Chrome extension that watches your browsing activity for mentions of large numerical measurements and automatically inserts equivalences in real-world terms that are meant to clarify things. For example, a story about a 300,000 acre forest fire would be annotated to note that this is about the area of LA or Hong Kong; or that 315 million people is about the population of the USA.

I noticed that my friends who were good at math generally rely on "landmark quantities", quantities they know by heart because they relate to them in human terms. They know, for example, that there are about 315 million people in the United States and that the most damaging Atlantic hurricanes cost anywhere from $20 billion to $100 billion. When they explain things to me, they use these numbers to give me a better sense of context about the subject, turning abstract numbers into something more concrete.

When I realized they were doing this, I thought this process could be automated, that perhaps through contextual descriptions people could become more familiar with quantities and begin evaluating and reasoning about them. There are many ways of approaching this problem, but given that most of the words we read are probably inside web browsers,** It might be interesting to to develop a similar system for use in spoken lectures. I decided to build a Chrome extension that inserts human explanations of numbers into web pages.

Dictionary of Numbers

(via XKCD blog)


  1. I’m annoyed to no end by news reports that spout out huge numbers related to some specialized field without any context whatsoever as to the significance of the value.

    Just wish I didn’t have to use Chrome to use it.

  2. Personally, I hate it when numeric analogies are used. Saying that something has as much information as the Library of Congress or weighs as much as an elephant isn’t very informative unless I happen to have those figures handy. Give me the real numbers.

    1.  Last week I had to explain to my mother how long a football field was after she complained that a documentary gave the analogy but not the actual number … she seemed surprised that I immediately knew the answer.

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