Numbers, as every mathematician knows, do odd things. But they’re never odder than in the human context. Ever since we crept out of the swamps, we’ve been making numbers lucky, fearsome, ominous and even sacred. Across the cultures, we’re nuts about numbers, with little thought for logic.
Take 23, for example. In 1960, William Burroughs met a sea captain who, after exactly 23 years at sea, was lost with all hands. The same day, Flight 23 was reported lost in Florida. After that, Burroughs became obsessed by the portentousness of 23, and others followed. At last, 23 was exposed; it’s the psalm of choice at funerals; in ancient Chinese tradition, it meant ‘breaking apart’. There were plenty of other ominous 23s. As Burroughs’s friend, Robert Wilson, noted, ‘When you start looking for something you tend to find it.’
And, boy, have we humans spent time giving meaning to numbers. Now, thanks to Rogerson’s Book of Numbers we have a delicious collection of the world’s holiest, most significant and wackiest integers. Laid out like a miniature encyclopaedia, Rogersons’s beautifully crafted references take us from the millions down to zero. All the big hitters are there, like 40 (a recurring figure in Semitic religions) and 12 (the astrologer’s staple). But there are also a few surprises like 56, which is much-favoured by the builders of columns (Stonehenge, Tiananmen Square and Washington’s National War Memorial).
It is, however, rare to find numbers that are significant across different cultures. There are a few obvious ones like 10 (thanks to our fingers) and 365 (our trip round the sun). But the dearth of common themes demonstrates the sheer illogicality of significant numbers. So it is that, in China, 4 is unlucky (it sounds like ‘death’) whereas, in the West, it’s 13 (both Napoleon and FDR refused to sit at tables of 13). Likewise, in Christendom, 666 is the ‘mark of the beast’, whereas, in Chinese, it’s the tonal equivalent of ‘things go smoothly’. 666 also happens to be the sum of all the numbers on a roulette wheel.
No doubt more disparities will emerge as Rogerson casts the net wider (there are hints of ongoing work). Although a great traveller and polymath, he focuses in this edition on Europe, Asia and the Arab world. It will be interesting to see his take on the tribal cultures of Africa and the Americas. The Guaraní (of Paraguay), for example, couldn’t care less about numbers, and have no word for any number greater than 5 (which is po, or ‘a hand’).
Meanwhile, there’s a lot to get one’s teeth into. This little volume is a tightly-packed hamper of intellectual treats. We learn about I-Ching and the ancient Chinese search for the meaning in numbers, and about abjad, the Arabian pseudo-science of substituting numbers for letters. Even when the theme strays from significant numbers to significant quantities, it can still make you gasp. Here are entries for the different names for Jerusalem (700); the positions described in the Kama Sutra (64), and Don Giovanni’s sexual conquests (1,003). Equally intriguing are the most commonly expressed regrets of the dying (5 apparently). They include ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.’
Not only is Rogerson’s grasp of great religions compelling, so is his sense of fun. We discover that the original ‘39 steps’ belonged to a nursing home in Broadstairs, and that the first attempt to codify football’s rules, in 1848, omitted to mention that there should be only 11 men per team. And then, just to show this book doesn’t take itself too seriously, there’s even an entry for the 101 dalmatians.
So, three cheers for a clever and slightly zany little book. Why is it three (you ask)? Well, that’ll be one for volume two.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £9.49. Tel: 08430 600033
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10