It Figures

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   April 30, 2024

Considering that we have only ten numerical digits and twenty-six alphabetical letters, it’s remarkable that so much use can be made of them without our having to invent any more. Actually, the trend seems to be in the other direction, with more and more of the numerical work being done by ones and zeros, and fewer and fewer letters being needed to satisfy the demands of “simplified spelling.” The only additional digits which seem to have been required are the symbol for infinity, and various symbols for One, followed by a certain number of zeros. (The term “googol” for a One with 100 zeros was suggested by a mathematician’s nine-year-old nephew.) For some of us, infinity is a hard concept to grasp. Of course, “infinite” and “eternal” have more or less the same meaning – although “eternal” somehow has a more soothing sound. 

But, regardless of mathematics, we’re all entitled to have favorite numbers. Superstition raises its head here, especially when it comes to gambling, and most of all, to lotteries with their very big prizes. As a worldwide favorite, however, the number seven seems to top the list. I need hardly remind you that the God of Genesis rested on the seventh day from his labors of creating the world. That is where we get our word Sabbath – from the Hebrew word meaning, not – as you might expect – “Seven,” but meaning “Rest.” Hence the idea of a “sabbatical,” no longer necessarily having any connection with seven, but still meaning an extended period of rest.

I personally don’t take “lucky numbers” very seriously. But some considerable time after I decided to limit my epigrams to a maximum of 17 words (influenced mainly by the Haiku, whose rules, however, are much more severe, requiring a total of exactly seventeen syllables, not words), I discovered that my own name happens to contain exactly 17 letters!

But there are other “magic” numbers. Christianity began as a sort of Jewish cult, and what had always distinguished the Hebrews from other peoples was their insistence that God is One. This obviously ruled out all kinds of idolatry. But the followers of Jesus developed the concept of “Three in One,” so that true holiness might endow a single worshipped figure with various aspects. You probably know that wars, sometimes lasting for generations, have been fought between groups of Christians believing in three as the truly holy number, and others preferring their own idea of what cosmologists now call a “singularity.” Other religions have very different views on this question. Depending on how and what you count, Hinduism, the major religion of India, has dozens, or even hundreds, of gods.

In the Hebrew Bible, it is the number 40 that seems to be the big one – starting with Noah’s Flood, when it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. Then we have the Children of Israel, after escaping from their bondage in Egypt, having to wander for forty years in the wilderness before they reach the River Jordan – a journey which, even in those days, would normally have taken, at most, only a week or two.

The number three is popular in nursery rhymes and fairy tales, especially concerning animals, such as the Three Blind Mice (cruelly mutilated by the Farmer’s Wife with a carving knife), the Black Sheep who provides three bags of wool, generously allotting them to three different recipients, the Three careless Little Kittens who Lost their Mittens, and the Three Little Piggies whose houses, constructed of three different materials, are in danger of being destroyed by an evil Wolf with tremendous lung power. 

But there are other numbers with supposed mystical meanings. Perhaps the best, or worst, example is 666, which can somehow be traced back to ancient Rome and the Emperor Nero, and his persecution of Christians. But in the Old Testament, it is specified that King Solomon received yearly 666 talents of gold.

Going from Nero back to Zero, we may point out that the much-feared Japanese World War II Zero fighter plane derived that name simply from its production code number, being the first of a new class of carrier-based fighters. 

Scientifically speaking, there is such a temperature as “absolute zero,” which is the coldest anything can possibly get.

But Fred Astaire came close to setting a new standard of thermal frigidity, when his lyrics about “A Fine Romance,” complained:

“We should be like a couple
of hot tomatoes,
But you’re as cold as
yesterday’s mashed potatoes.”


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