The Magic Number

Numbers are pretty powerful. These scribbly little symbols dictate so many aspects of our lives – from counting the cash left in our wallets to counting down the days until the end of the week. They help mould our understanding of time, frame our surroundings and have a constant appearance in everything we see and do. They make us judgemental, bring us happiness and provide us with power.

So where did these figure arise from? And when did they become so significant?

In one way we can view the first idea of a number to be difference between one and two objects, which dates back to primary human instincts, however it was not until thousands of years later that numbers became written figures and we started recognising their importance. After recognition of this importance, numbers, unlike letters, began to represent trade until we reach a time where, as a society, we gamble and invest away millions on these scrawny little lines. In essence it’s numbers revolving around numbers.

This all really stems from a podcast I recently listened to on RadioLab – a new addiction I’m currently using to soothe the pain of the early morning train. In this particular podcast, the concept of having a favourite number was debated and why it is that some people choose to have one.

I think it’s reasonable to assume that numbers are probably one of the most logical things that exist within our lives. Along with letters, they form the basis of language, speech and mathematics. So with such a prominent presence in every one of our lives, is it natural to have a favourite number? Or, when we associate numbers with logic, validity and reasoning, is it then simply irrational to place so much emotion into something entirely rational? Numbers can’t move, communicate or feel anything we do so why then should one number be better than another?

One prominent reason arose when a variety of people were asked whether they had a favourite number in the podcast study. And this was an association with something that had happened in their lives. For example if you loved the number nine because you were born on the ninth of the month or you have nine kids or you ate the best bagel of your life at 9pm. A surprising amount of the time, people seem to find tiny coincidences between unrelated events in order to entwine them to somehow justify a favourite number. So if your favourite number is four because your cat turned four on the day that you bought four pints at a bar called number four where you happened to meet the love of your life, then that’s totally justifiable. Okay, maybe not. Unless the love of your life’s name was four… then I guess that’s just about acceptable.

So let’s say this is a valid reason – favouritism defined by personal events. Based on the fact that numbers entrap so many parts of out lives, how do you pick which is the most important event? And surely as how in today’s society numbers consistently represent money and wealth, surely a higher number would be a better one? Yet you hardly ever hear anyone answering the ‘favourite number’ question with ‘a billion’.

Perhaps then we value personal attachment to particular numbers more than an association with money. Otherwise choosing your favourite number in the billions may just look rather greedy. It is likely that, as we tend to encounter lower numbers substantially more often than higher numbers, we find it easier to connect with numbers which we find in days of the week, fingers on your hand or the spare change from a weekly shop. And this isn’t too say everyone finds a deep emotional connection to every number under ten, however superstition and luck both creep up rather regularly. Why is the number thirteen unlucky, and why is the number seven lucky? If we didn’t connect with numbers on some level then we would probably have a thirteenth floor on every building in America. But as it stands, people still refuse to stay in hotel rooms 666 and thirteenth floors remain absent.

Clearly religious reasons play a part however I really think favouritism in numbers is influenced heavily by those around us.

When asked in the podcast what everyone’s favourite number was, an overwhelming majority came up with the same answer. Seven. Justifications for reasons included the way it sounded and the written symbol itself, alongside other far-fetched ideas. Someone even suggested the number of holes in the head. However a more mathematical explanation was that seven is a odd number. And not odd in the way that it’s opposite to even but in the way that it’s unusual. As the only number under ten so not be divisible by another number or multiplied to make another number under ten, it’s irrational. Or maybe just irritating. So perhaps people like this unusual-ness in a number, rather than something more rounded. Could we go as far as to say this our favourite number is reflected by our personality?

Well what about my favourite number? If I like the number seven does that make me sporadic and the number ten make me wholesome? The number thirteen superstitious and twenty two diplomatic? Well I thought the whole concept was slightly ridiculous until I decided to ask a few people – most of which weren’t bothered by any particular number. I only encountered a direct answer when I finally decided to pose the same question to my parents who – at the peak of all ridiculous answers – told me it was 42 because according to the fantasy book ‘The Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy’, it’s the meaning of life. Oh and that we happen to live at 42, which actually came to them as an after thought. I guess what’s meaningful in a number changes from person to person. So maybe one day I’ll inherit this view and base my favourite number on something thats also a little bit nuts, but until then – until something happens causes me to crave some crazy numerical tattoo or only move into a house of a certain number – I think I’ll keep my views rather open to suggestion.

Agree? Disagree? What’s your favourite number and why? Comment below.


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