The Times made a similar mistake in The Death of Checkers, December 9, writing:
The brute-force method is slow, which is its big limit. Schaeffer says he suspects you couldn’t use it to solve chess, because that game — with between 1040 and 1050 possible arrangements of pieces — is far more complicated than checkers, which has 5 × 1020 positions. “Chess won’t be solved in my lifetime,” he predicts. “We need some new breakthrough in technology to do that.
(James Kushner, a reader of this blog, pointed this out to me; I meant to mention it at the time but didn't.)
This particular mistake is actually so common that I barely notice it any more, especially because I usually have a decent idea of what the number should be. But to someone who doesn't know, it could make a big difference in how they perceive the article. For one thing, if you interpret the checkers quote literally, you get the idea that checkers is more complicated than chess: after all, 5 × 1020 =
Another paper that's been known to make these mistakes is The Tech, MIT's student newspaper. The difference here is that The Tech ought to know better; their entire staff is MIT students, who ought to be familiar with exponents. The Times at least has an excuse. (Disclaimer: I went to MIT as an undergraduate.)
Now if only I could get the Times to write about tilings of the plane, where they could say that an 80 by 80 rectangle has "10800" domino tilings. (That's "ten thousand eight hundred", as opposed to the correct number, which is around "ten to the eight hundredth".) Or just in general to write about statistical mechanics, which is where numbers like this come up.
(The Times article which provoked all this -- on the question of whether the laws of nature are inherently mathematical or whether we've just gotten lucky -- is interesting as well. The way I see it, even if a nonmathematical physics is possible, the mathematical physics is so far ahead that we might as well just act as if physics is ultimately governed by mathematics. But I don't think a nonmathematical physics that has the same explanatory power as the physics we have is possible. That might just be a matter of faith.)