“I just like it strongly for no particular reason. It’s kind of like my inexplicable affinity for octopuses,” said a young woman from America recently as justification for her choice of three as her favourite number. The occasion: an online survey by ‘maths-populariser’ Alex Bellos asking for people to vote for their preferred number and to explain their choices.
The results have been hitting the headlines this week and as well as being an entertaining exercise children are likely to enjoy, here’s a golden opportunity to bring lots of interesting talk to bear on mathematics; exploring both the properties of certain numbers but also their broader cultural associations, ancient and modern.
On the subject of three, it has significant rhetorical roots, being intrinsic to the tri-colonic method of rendering a satisfying list. Ten it seems derives some of its popularity from Harry Potter being the age at which youngsters qualify for admission to Hogwarts.
The most popular number ended up – perhaps unsurprisingly – being seven. Bellos has some interesting suggestions for this high approval rate – suggesting it has something to do with the general oddness of the number compared to its near numerical neighbours under ten – those we can count on our fingers. Unlike 1,2,3,4,5,6,8,9,10 – 7 cannot be divided or multiplied by any of its close associates or itself and arrive at a number between 1 and 10. As the outsider in this respect, suggests Bellos, it attracts the popular vote always accorded the underdog. But then there are also all the important sevens in the world – dwarves, sisters, brides, numbers of trumpets and laps of Jericho needed to bring the walls down, etc,etc.
A quick unscientific survey in the TT Education office revealed that David’s preferred number is 12 – his birthdate. Meanwhile Paul likes 7 since that happened to be the age he was first asked this question. For her part, Christina restores a suitable dose of the surreal by opting for 13 – her birthdate (31) reversed. For my part (Jerome writing this) – 3 is probably the one I would go for, though 4 comes a close second being the Thunderbirds craft I would most have liked to pilot – the deep oceans being far more interesting than outer space.
And finally – 110 seems to have carried off the award for the least popular number – the lowest number not chosen by any of the 30,000 people that contributed to the research.
To hear a radio interview with Alex Bellos – and he gives a good interview – go to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03zr00h and click on the last two minutes of the programme.
To find out even more, the results of the survey are available via Alex Bellos’ publishers Bloomsbury – on a page promoting his most recent book of popular maths: Alex Through The Looking Glass.
It is here that you can read some of the more quirky explanations provided by contributors about their choices: a great stimulus for children and young people to explain their numerical loves and hates.
Published on 18 July 2014