No, it’s not Dumb and Dumber, Jim Carrey’s latest venture (and here’s hoping that maybe Carrey can become funny again). It’s Numb and Number. An ode to the human species’ fascination with numbers, the power inherent in numbers, etc. You know, lucky numbers, odds and evens, primes, transcendental numbers, imaginary ones, etc.
However, before going any further, this writer must make a confession. I personify numerals. I’m not sure if this is “normal”. It could be just me. I think other people might also see some of the numerals as possessing human attributes, but I’ve always been too embarassed to ask.
There are happy numbers, sad numbers
Strong numbers, weak numbers
Big numbers, little numbers
Sounds like Dr. Seuss numbers
Who let those numbers out of the bag numbers?
We write numbers all our lives. We “crunch” the numbers. We do our “maths”. We “juggle” and “play” with numbers, and somewhere along the line, every now and then, in our weaker moments perhaps, we start to assign human characteristics to the numerals. At least I do. Looking for the source of this malady of anthromorphizing everything, I recalled two “harmless” little childhood memories that insidiously steered me down this path (or is it the slippery slope?) of numerical silliness. When I was a young boy back in the Bronx, I would always read the Saturday New York Post Comics Section, which each week would feature a little contest for the kiddies where you had to use all ten numerals to draw a picture. They would give you a piece of a drawing, say a man’s hat and a moustache, and you had to complete the picture using only the ten numerals. A long 7 could become a nose, the 8 a pair of eyeglasses. You could stretch and twist the numerals any way you liked, so the puzzle was usually quite do-able. But once you use numbers to representphysical objects and body parts, well, they begin to take on a life of their own. YIKES!!!
When I was a kid, I also watched Pro Bowling on TV, as I liked bowling very much. Still do. Back then, though, people kept score by hand and wrote the tally after each frame on an actual scorecard. On the televised Pro Bowling, a bald-headed man (You’d only see the back of his head. He never turned around) would enter the scores onto a large scoresheet that was mounted on the wall. He wrote his numbers so beautifully. As a kid with horrible penmanship I was very impressed. I recall that he drew his eights with two circles, one atop the other! Wow. Today these kinesthetic experiences are drastically reduced by computer technology. Numbers are typed, and they’re tallied by calculators. Clocks are digital. Before we become overly nostalgic and start to yearn for some long division, let’s move on.
The world as we know it is apparently built upon a limited number of universal proportions. Although these proportions can never be expressed precisely by our ten-based number system, we do our best to come as close as we can to describe these proportions with our numbers. Pi and phi, for instance, are geometric proportions and can only be described numerically as approximations. Pi is 3.14159…. Phi is √5 – 1 divided by 2, which comes to 1.618….ad infinitum. The circle is perhaps the greatest universal, expressed so elegantly algebraically as x squared plus y squared equals one. We see these proportions throughout the universe.
The grand quest is for the discovery of the several basic proportions – the constants – that underlie our universe. Scientists currently have a list of about twenty universal constants: Planck’s constant, the speed of light, the charge of an electron, the size of some of the basic particles. But over time, these constants are better understood and get re-defined in terms of other known constants – so that the number of necessary constants is reduced. Eventually everything will be explained to us with only two or three constants. Of course this grand quest requires great patience and constancy.