When making notes recently I felt like using a symbol for "a large amount of", and it occurred to me that surely others before me must have experienced the need for such a symbol.

What symbols have been used for "many" (or "a large amount of") or "a few" (or "a small amount of") in the history of mathematics or in other fields of theoretical endeavour, or practical work or experimentation, such as medicine, chemistry, alchemy, or physics?


The concept of "many" or "a large quantity" is surely an anthropological invariant. The apparent absence of well-known symbols for it is intriguing. I would have expected there to be symbols for it in alchemy and medicine, denoting a quantity of one substance that's easily sufficient to flood out another. And is there no symbol for a "trace amount"?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "Large" and "small" are relative and completely meaningless out of context, so they are of no use in mathematics. Little o notation is used to indicate that one quantity is asymptotically vanishingly smaller than the other. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Jan 1, 2021 at 7:55
  • $\begingroup$ Double "<", like "<<" can be used to show that the left side is far smaller than the right. But it is not really math, because "far smaller" has no math definition (actually you could create one). $\endgroup$
    – peterh
    Jan 1, 2021 at 12:14
  • $\begingroup$ Many concepts in mathematics and other fields of endeavour too are relative and meaningless out of context. In mathematics there is $\epsilon$ for an arbitrarily small quantity when there is continuity, but I am after a symbol for a more general concept, a concept the existence of which is pretty much an anthropological invariant. $\endgroup$
    – user13571
    Jan 1, 2021 at 12:31
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ From peterh: $x \gg 1$ means $x$ is very large, and $x \ll 1$ means $x$ is very small. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2021 at 12:44
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Related: math.stackexchange.com/questions/1188813/…. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2021 at 13:09


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.