Why we all love numbers Alex Bellos, Friday 4 April 2014
We cannot help but react to numbers, but why are odds masculine and evens feminine? Why were Levi's 501s and WD-40 given those names? And is number 3 really 'warm' and 'friendly'?
Jerry Newport asks me to pick a four-digit number.
"2761," I say. "That's 11 x 251," he replies, reciting the numbers in one continuous, unhesitant flow. "2762. That's 2 x 1381. 2763. That's 3 x 3 x 307. 2764. That's 2 x 2 x 691."
Jerry is a retired taxi driver from Tucson, Arizona, who has Asperger syndrome. He has a ruddy complexion and small blue eyes, his large forehead sliced by a diagonal comb of dark-blond hair. He likes birds as well as numbers, and when we meet he is wearing a flowery red shirt with a parrot on it. We are sitting in his living room, together with a cockatoo, a dove, three parakeets and two cockatiels, which were listening to, and occasionally repeating, our conversation.
As soon as Jerry sees a big number, he divides it up into prime numbers. This habit made his former job driving cabs particularly enjoyable, since there was always a number on the licence plate in front of him. When he lived in Santa Monica, where licence numbers were four and five digits long, he would often visit the four-storey car park of his local mall and not leave until he had worked through every plate. In Tucson, however, car numbers are only three digits long. He barely glances at them now. "If the number is more than four digits I'll start to pay attention to it. If it's four digits or less, it's roadkill. It is!" he remonstrates. "Come on! Show me something new!"
Asperger's is a psychological disorder in which social awkwardness can coexist with extreme abilities, such as, in Jerry's case, an extraordinary talent for mental arithmetic. In 2010, he competed at the Mental Calculation World Cup in Germany having done no preparation. He won the overall title of most versatile calculator, the only contestant to score full marks in the category where 19 five-digit numbers have to be decomposed into their constituent primes in 10 minutes. No one else even got close.
Jerry's system for breaking down large numbers is to sieve out the prime numbers in ascending order, extracting a 2 if the number is even, extracting a 3 if it divides by three, a 5 if it divides by five and so on.
His wife, Mary, who is sitting on the sofa next to us, a musician and former Star Trek extra, also has Asperger's, which is much less common in women than it is in men. A marriage between two people with Asperger's is rare, and their unconventional romance was turned into the 2005 Hollywood film Mozart and the Whale.
Sometimes Jerry cannot extract any primes from a large number, which means the number is itself prime. When this happens it gives him a thrill: "If it's a prime number I've never found before, it's kinda like if you were looking for rocks, and you've found a new rock, something like a diamond you can take home and put on your shelf." He pauses. "A new prime number – it's like having a new friend."
The earliest words and symbols used for numbers date from about 5,000 years ago in Sumer, a region in what is now Iraq. Initially, numbers served a practical purpose, such as counting sheep and calculating taxes. Yet they also revealed abstract patterns, which made them objects of contemplation. Perhaps the earliest mathematical discovery was that numbers come in two types: even – those that can be halved cleanly, such as 2, 4 and 6 – and odd – those that cannot, such as 1, 3 and 5. Pythagoras, who lived in the sixth century BC, echoed the Sumerian association of one with man and two with woman by proclaiming odd numbers masculine and even numbers feminine.
Resistance to splitting in two, he argued, embodied strength, while susceptibility to splitting in two was a weakness. He gave a further arithmetical justification: odd was master over even, just as man is master over woman, because when you add an odd number to an even number, the answer remains odd.
Pythagoras is most famous for his theorem about triangles, but his belief about number gender has dominated western thought for more than 2,000 years. Christianity embraced it within its creation myth: God created Adam first and Eve second. For the medieval church, odd numbers were stronger, better, more godly and luckier than even, and by Shakespeare's time, metaphysical beliefs about odd numbers were common: "They say there is divinity in odd numbers". These superstitions remain. Mystical numbers still tend to be odd, notably the "magic" three, the "lucky" seven and the "unlucky" 13.
Shakespeare is also responsible for the modern meaning of "odd". Originally, the word only had a numerical sense. It was used in phrases such as "odd man out", the unpaired member of a group of three. But in Love's Labour's Lost, the farcical Spaniard Don Adriano de Armado is described as "too picked, too spruce, too affected, too odd, as it were". "Odd" has meant "peculiar" ever since.
It is human nature to be sensitive to numerical patterns.
Ex.1: Skim the text and answer the questions:
What is Asperger's syndrome?
What kind of numbers is Jerry thrilled with?
Where do the earliest words and symbols used for numbers date from?
Ex.2: Use a dictionary and translate the words:
Ex.3: Use a dictionary, read the text and answer the questions:
What numbers are called odd (even)?
What is another meaning of the word “odd”?
Who is responsible for the other meaning of the word “odd”?
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