The fraught, freighted number of this particular American moment is a round one brimming with zeroes: 100,000. A hundred thousands. A thousand hundreds. Five thousand score. More than 8,000 dozen. All dead.
This is the week when America's official coronavirus death toll reaches six digits. One hundred thousand lives wiped out by a disease unknown to science a half a year ago.
And as the unwanted figure arrives — nearly a third of the global pandemic deaths in the first five months of a very trying year — what can looking at that one and those five zeroes tell us? What does any number deployed in momentous times to convey scope and seriousness and thought really mean?
"We all want to measure these experiences because they're so shocking, so overwhelming that we want to bring some sense of knowability to the unknown," says Jeffrey Jackson, a history professor at Rhodes College in Tennessee who teaches about the politics of natural disasters.
This is not new. In the mid-1800s, a new level of numerical precision was emerging in Western society around the same time the United States fought the Civil War. Facing such massive death and challenges counting the dead, Americans started to realize that numbers and statistics represented more than knowledge; they contained power, according to historian Drew Gilpin Faust.
"Their provision of seemingly objective knowledge promised a foundation for control in a reality escaping the bounds of the imaginable," Faust wrote in "This Republic of Suffering," her account of how the Civil War changed Americans' relationship with death.
"Numbers," she wrote, "represented a means of imposing sense and order on what Walt Whitman tellingly depicted as the `countless graves' of the `infinite dead.'"
Today's Americans have precedents for visualizing and understanding 100,000 people — dead and alive. They have numerous comparisons at hand.
For example: Beaver Stadium, seen often on TV as the home to Penn State football and one of the country's largest sports venues, holds 106,572 people when full. The 2018 estimated population of South Bend, Indiana, was 101,860. About 100,000 people visit the Statue of Liberty every 10 days.
The total amount of U.S. Civil War deaths was 655,000. For World War I it was more than 116,000, for World War II more than 405,000 and for the Korean and Vietnam wars more than 36,000 and more than 58,000 respectively. Those don't include non-U.S. deaths.
Gun violence killed more than 37,000 people a year on average between 2014 and 2018 in the United States. And 9/11 took exactly 2,996 lives, a figure that the U.S. coronavirus tally passed in early April.
At some point with numbers, though, things start feeling more abstract and less comprehensible. This has informed the methodology of remembering the Holocaust by humanizing it: Six million dead, after all, is a figure so enormous that it resists comprehension.
"It's really hard for people to grasp statistics when it comes to numbers after a certain scale," says Lorenzo Servitje, an assistant professor of literature and medicine at Lehigh University.
"Can you picture 30,000 people Or 50,000 people? And when you get into the millions, what do you even do with that?" he says. "It's so outside of our everyday life that it's hard to grasp meaning from them."
The New York Times tried to address that problem Sunday, dedicating its entire front page to naming the virus dead — an exercise that, even in a tiny typeface, only captured 1% of those now gone. "A count," the newspaper said, "reveals only so much."