Rob Hardy on books


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Numbers in Lore, Not Math



Rob Hardy


Mathematics seems to rule everything. The power of number and pattern to model and measure all sorts of physical behaviors and characteristics has led to profound speculations about the nature of reality. With numbers so important, people are naturally going to attach meaning to them - some numbers are ominous, or even sacred. And everyone is familiar with the idea of having a personal lucky number, though a favorite cartoon of mine shows a bemused diner at a Chinese restaurant, who is looking at the slip of paper just extracted from his fortune cookie: "Your lucky number is 53,251,938." The lore and folklore of numbers are part of their power, a part that is examined for the fun of it in Rogerson's Book of Numbers: The Culture of Numbers from 1001 Nights to the Seven Wonders of the World (Profile Books) by Barnaby Rogerson. The author is a publisher and a writer on travel and history who for thirty years has been collecting numbers of varying significance. The result is that for each specific numbers (after the sections on millions and hundreds) there are a few pages of strange and amusing facts. This is a wonderful book for leafing through and getting the pleasant "I never knew that!" feeling. 




One of the surprising things here is how often people wish to put multiple names onto that which they hold sacred. There are the "ninety-nine most beautiful names" of God, for his prophet said there were just that many. Rogerson, who has written about the life of Muhammad, says that the names "are a useful tool for a monotheistic culture to possess, for one of the essential dualities of all religious experience is the knowledge of unity but the need for diversity, and with a God of such vast power and mindless distance from humanity we need intercessors, be they Catholic saints, revered Sufi masters, Buddhist avatars, Shamanic healers or Judaic angels." Rogerson tells us there are 99 such names in this specific case, but wisely does not list them all, as a sample suffices: "Ar-Rahman (The Beneficent); Ar-Rahim (The Merciful)," and so on. Similarly, there are "Mother of God; Mother most chaste; Mother without stain" and more sampled for the 49 titles of the Blessed Virgin Mary. There are 108 names of Krishna, like "Ajanma ('Limitless and Endless')" and "Padmanabha ('Lord Who Has a Lotus for a Navel')."  




It isn't surprising that one of the biggest sections of the book is devoted to the number twelve, with signs of the zodiac, days of Christmas, disciples, labors of Hercules and Roman months of the year all listed. The twelve months of the short-lived French Republican calendar are here: Vendemiaire (grape harvest); Brumaire (fog); Frimaire (frost); Nivose (snowy); Pluviose (rainy); Ventose (windy); Germinal (germination); Floreal (flower); Prairial (pasture); Messidor (harvest); Thermidor (heat); and Fructidor (fruit). Hilariously, the British ridiculed the names within the four seasons as: Wheezy, Sneezy, Freezy; Slippy, Drippy, Nippy; Showery, Flowery, Bowery; Wheaty, Heaty, and Sweety. This reminds me of the names of the Seven Dwarfs, and indeed, in the section on the number seven, there they are, with the notation that the Brothers Grimm never named the fellows, so we all use the ones concocted for the 1937 Disney film (although there was a German play of 1912 with Blick, Flick, Glick, Plick, Whick, Snick, and Quee).  




23 might not seem like a very significant number, but that depends on how hard you look for it. The writer William Burrows noted some coincidental mentions of 23 one day, and then started noticing how often the number came up. His friends Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea used 23 as a guiding principle in their Illuminatus! Trilogy, the 23 Enigma. You can find 23 as the number of chromosomes from each of our parents, or the number of the psalm often read at funerals, and more: "All nice examples of selective perception or, as Wilson put it, 'When you start looking for something you tend to find it.'" Another literary number here is 42, the answer to the ultimate question of life as found in the renowned The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This might have been disconcerting to Japanese readers, because pronouncing "four two" in Japanese sounds like "unto death." In China, 14 sounds like "guaranteed death," so you may not find a fourteenth floor in a high-rise. 




Here is a useful word I found under the section on three: tricolon. It means "a rhetorical flourish - a sonorous list of three concepts, often escalating in significance." Rogerson lists several, like "Veni, Vidi, Vici," but omits my favorite, the lawyer's over-packed "irrelevant, incompetent, and immaterial."  




There are even lessons for life in this engaging and wide-ranging book. A nurse who specialized in caring for the dying found that those about to die expressed five typical regrets: "I wish I had lived the life true to myself, not the life expected of me. I wish I had not worked so hard. I wish I could have expressed my feelings. I wish that I had stayed true to my friends. I wish that I had allowed myself to be happier." As Rogerson says, Carpe diem. And while you are busy seizing, don't forget the Kama Sutra's arts of love (64).



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