Have your Google people talk to my `googol' people

Conversations

May 16, 2004|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,SUN STAFF

Clarification

In an article in Sunday's Arts & Society section, the great-niece of Edward Kasner, the mathematician who popularized the term "googol," misspoke when she said she first heard of Google, the Internet search engine, in 1988. The company was formed in 1998.

In the late 1930s, noted mathematician and Columbia University professor Edward Kasner was asked to come up with a name for an extraordinarily large number. While on a walk one day, he asked his 9-year-old nephew, Milton Sirotta, if he had any ideas.

"Googol," the youngster replied.

The concept was announced in 1940, in Kasner's best-selling book, Mathematics and the Imagination. A googol, he wrote, is 10 raised to the 100th power - or the number 1 followed by a hundred zeros. In an obituary in The New York Times in 1955, Kasner was quoted explaining that a googol was "more than the number of raindrops falling on the city in a century, or the number of grains of sand on the Coney Island beach."

Today, though, when most people hear the term, they are likely thinking not of Kasner, but of the popular Internet search engine, Google. And that, for some, is the problem.

Relatives of Kasner are crying foul. They believe Google has gained financially at their expense. That conviction only increased with Google's recent announcement that it will go public, hoping to raise $2.7 billion in sales of its stock. If the stock price reaches $40 per share, the founders of the company and several of its employees will be worth many millions each.

Peri Fleisher of Santa Cruz, Calif., Kasner's great-niece and a compensation specialist for a Silicon Valley firm, spoke with The Sun about her great-uncle and the family's quest for compensation.

Edward Kasner died in 1955. Did you know him?

I was 4 when he died, so I vaguely remember him. He was one of 12 kids. He never married. He was very close to all his nephews and nieces. My mother was a widow with five kids, and he acted as a surrogate father. He was a pacifist, and very much an intellectual. He received a degree from City College in New York at the age of 19, and a doctorate from Columbia at 21. From all accounts, he was a wonderful person.

What do you think your great-uncle would think if he knew that googol, while spelled slightly differently, has come to represent the immensely popular search engine?

I'm not sure. Obviously it's only brought attention to the name, it hasn't brought attention to his work, so I'm not quite certain what he'd think. They're not using the concepts, but just capitalizing on the name.

How long have you felt that Google owed your family something?

It's nothing I dwell on. It came up when they first started. My son, David, inherited the rights to my great-uncle's book, so we have a little bit of an interest.

Google's Web site does acknowledge that the term googol was coined by Sirotta and the concept developed by your great-uncle. You don't think that's sufficient?

I had heard of Google in 1988 before most people were aware of it. I didn't know if the company was going to take off or not. I wrote them and introduced myself. I just wanted to give them the opportunity; to let them know that he [Kasner] had living relatives. They never responded. I don't know if they were too busy and couldn't get back to me, or if it was done deliberately.

They are playing off that number and not compensating us even a little bit. Ethically, they could have been more giving. If nothing else, they should have given us the opportunity to operate as insiders for the IPO.

Do you believe the company is morally wrong for using the name?

I don't know if morally wrong is the right term. In terms of business ethics, it would have been wrong had they not acknowledged that's how they chose the name. But I do think it's wrong. I've worked with a lot of young, entrepreneurial types who are very arrogant. We need to explore and protect our rights a little bit.

But you believe Google has an obligation to compensate you and your family for using the name coined by your great uncle, correct?

Legally, that's an open question we're exploring. But ethically, courteously, yes. I see some hypocrisy there. They have ignored us. Other than changing a couple of letters on the name, they are capitalizing on it. This is a business. These guys are going to make billions of dollars. It's not a cute little thing.

As you know, Google now plans to make an initial public offering and expects to raise $2.7 billion. Does that fact make you more determined to be compensated?

You don't need to give us anything. Just let us participate as insiders on the IPO. I don't think it's a lot to ask.

Might you consider legal action?

I don't know if there is anything we can do. A cousin is going to start exploring that. I don't want to come across as threatening. Most of the people in our family are pretty intellectual and no one in our family has been really aggressive. But again, we're not wimps or wallflowers. If we do have a legal right, we're certainly going to exercise that. And now is the time. Google is big and popular now, but who knows what's going to happen when they go public. There are other companies are on their tails. Now is the time to capitalize.

Do you use Google as a search engine?

I do. I also use Yahoo. After I was interviewed on [National Public Radio's] Talk of the Nation, I Googled myself, but it didn't come up. When I Yahooed myself, it came up immediately. It took longer for Google to post it.

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