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  • Pamela S

On the Personality of Numbers

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

Whole numbers have a personality. Not many are aware of this presumptive fact, but it is actually true. Dedicated mathematicians know this; statisticians know this; and some not small number of accountants are aware. When numbers are polluted by science, there is a questionable allegiance to this personality theory. Physicists are probably the closest in appreciation, but chemists, biologists, and earth delvers are too clouded by reality. Those in the technological field are all over the plane. Some of the most math-minded engineers are given benefit, but app developers are usually not in the know.

Even numbers are soft, round, pleasing folk. They are transparent: no matter the number of digits, evenness can be identified by the hindquarters. (I suppose the same can be said for odd numbers, but no one asks that question.) Even numbers are social creatures, partial to sharing and to forming squares. No one gets left out. No one is rejected, scorned, or remaindered. Whether in their Arabic form [see note 1] or in a grouping, they cooperate with one another and form a team. (Perhaps one exception is 14. Not only does it have a dismal divisibility record, its association with 7 casts a pall on its reputation. Not only did 14 not learn from the model of its neighbor 12, but its rebellion is likely due to the attention that 12 garners, particularly among the English.)

Of the even numbers, 2 of course is quintessential. So much could be said about 2, but it is outside the scope of this short exposition. As my personal lifelong favorite, 4 is right after 2 in serviceability of the evens. The number 8 is somewhat a simp, but since it has no odd divisors, it has retained a measure of respect over the years. Then there is 6. Sometimes a number works best on its own, and this is definitely the case with 6. Put it in a grouping with others of its kind, and all hell breaks loose.

Our next group of numbers is introduced by such phrases such as odd-one-out, odd character, oddity, odd fish, odd jobs, odd egg, and odd couple (an oxymoron in the math world). Odd numbers are merely tolerated. They are sharp, pointy, and difficult. However, a scant few are redeemed just by their usefulness, such as 1, 3, 5, and 9. (Actually 9 isn't so much useful as intriguing. What child has not used the magical finger trick to multiply by nine?) Much ink could be spilled on 7, which is utterly useless, and which has aligned itself with nefarious activities like gambling. It has drawn shy 11 into its domain, and ruined it forever. The only absolving trait of 7 is its primal nature, which distinguishes it only among the odds.

We would be remiss if we did not include 0 in our discussion, despite the recent push to Pluto-ize its existence. For such a (insert air quotes) non-number, math would fall to its knees without 0. Buildings would crumble, satellites would fall from the sky, and time would cease. Its nothingness is its genius. It could make a living on holding places alone. Just by where it is sitting, it has made millionaires and paupers. Its diversity is astounding, although it does make for a poor downstairs neighbor.

Not much is perfect in this world. Some would argue Jesus and math alone. For those whose lives are darkened by the need to figure out numbers for a letter grade (oh, the paradox in that statement), perhaps one approach is to give numbers another look. Numbers too can be your friends, in all their quirkiness and helpfulness. The shy, the unpopular, and the rejected can find adequate community among numbers. Just don't be seen with 7, and keep 6 alone in its fish tank.


[1] This entire writing has jarred my grammatical sensibilities, due to its juxtaposition with the grammar rule of always writing out any number below ten. However, I justify my lawlessness given the mathematical focus of this topic, and that these numbers show their personality best in their raw Arabic form. All the same, in good faith to grammatical authority, I demurred from starting a sentence with an Arabic number.

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15 nov 2020

As my child would say, "You just blew my mind!" I am still processing all the interesting characteristics and personalities of the numbers. A topic that, as a non-mathematician and a 'not good numbers' person, was still incredibly amazing.

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