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Krulwich Wonders: What's The World's Favorite Number?

Friday, July 22, 2011 - 10:00 AM

NPR

A post from Robert's excellent blog Krulwich Wonders. Read all his Krulwich Wonders posts here.

It's a simple question, really, but a cunning one, because the answers are so embarrassingly, voluptuously personal. Alex Bellos thought it up. He's a writer, math enthusiast, and nut.

Here's what he wants: He wants to know your favorite number. Just that. Tell me your favorite, and tell me why, he says.

He's set up a website, www.favoritenumber.net and he's asked people to write in. So far he's had about 13,000 submissions. He wants more. So I'm pimping his site here, and while it's early in the running, Alex has already noticed that odd numbers are more popular than even numbers, prime numbers more popular than non-primes, birthdays are often favorites, but the real fun is how people fantasize.

For example, why choose "37?"

Because, says a 37-liker, "It looks mysterious, like a cloaked villain from a silent movie." Really?

A poster for the silent movie "Thirty-Seven."

Or how about "17?" One person chose 17 because ...

It just seems like a colossal misfit. Many numbers, even some prime numbers, if they are not even, they still feel "round." Not 17, though. It's awkward and slightly difficult to deal with.

Not everybody is this peculiar. The most common reason to have a favorite number is it's the day you were born, especially if you were born on the 3rd, the 5th, the 9th, the 13th. "If you were born, like me, on the 22nd," Alex says, "you are unlikely to choose your birthday as your favorite number." He has yet to find anyone who chose 30, even if they were born on the 30th. "It just doesn't happen," he says. He doesn't know why.

Another mystery: Not many people like 1 or 10.

But the deep surprise, he says, is how passionate people are. "It's looking at numbers in a totally different way. You learn mathematical things, you learn human things, sometimes you want to laugh, sometimes you want to cry."

Here's one submission, from a guy who chose "6":

It's a bit of an underdog — some think it's evil (666), when it's only just a number; it's halfway to a dozen (and six of one), which makes it an average amount; the rather boring shape of a cube has six sides; it's stuck between 5 (a nice definite number — of fingers, of golden rings, of basketball players) and lucky number 7 (a religious number; God rested on the 7th day ... the Seven Lucky Gods of Japanese mythology). All these reasons make 6 a bit of an underdog.

6 is stuck between 5 and 7 at the movies.

He's not done:

I like how it looks. I also enjoy the more uncommon letters, so the 'x' within the simplicity of 'six' makes it sound enigmatic (although I also love how it sounds in Spanish: 'seis'). Maybe the Latin prefix 'sex' has something to do with it, although I've liked the number since I was way too young ... quite possibly since I was six. Additionally, for unexplained and coincidental reasons — or perhaps because it is my favorite number, and thus it has a subconscious edge — some of the best songs on many of my favorite albums happen to be the sixth track. Oh, and there's Six Degrees to Kevin Bacon. That's kinda cool.

Who's Winning?

Though it's early in the running, right now, "7" is leading the race to be the World's Favorite Number. And right behind 7 are 3, 11, and 13. All primes. Why this primacy of primes? Alex, going a little mystical, says these numbers, being indivisible, feel "strong and kind of trustworthy."

But 7 seems to have a special glow; 7 leads across religious, national, gender, even educational lines, and double-7s are common too. Then there's the woman who likes "7.07":

10/root(2) means "I love you."

This number is 10/root(2). I had been doing a lot of trig homework for a calculus class I was taking in undergrad and this number appears a lot. At the time I was sort of weirded out by the fact that I kept waking up at 7:07 am instead of 7:30, when my alarm was set for.

Anyway, one Saturday I went to my local art supply story and bought some paintbrushes. To my surprise the total came to $7.07, and I sort of blurted out, "Oh, that's 10 over root two again," to the very cute cashier, for whom I had a rather pathetic crush, and who I was constantly embarrassing myself in front of. After explaining myself, he was duly impressed and began embarrassing himself in front of me whenever I came to the store. And from that point on I realized there's a brand of arty guys that like nerdy girls, and this still makes me happy some 15 years later.

Alex says so far his respondents are fallen into two broad categories, folks who like numbers for their mathematical qualities, divisibility, indivisibility, roots, etc. and those who slip into anthropomorphized fantasies. Either way, he notices, "as humans, we impose patterns when there aren't any, or give human characteristics when there aren't any." If there are differences between genders, nationalities, ages, it's too early to say. He needs more data.

So, if you want to help him out, here, one more time, is his address: www.favoritenumber.net. Notice it's not an "org" or a "com," it's a "net."

And, by the way, passionate devotion to a number is not required. A mild, puzzled attraction is ok. Like this guy who chose "37":

More recently I've also taken a liking in — what appears to me and many others — as the oddest number: 37. There just seems to be nothing you can divide it by or much you can do with it.

37 is useless.

Me? I'm done pimping. I'm off to cuddle with one of my favorites. Not a prime, but it has this soft, relaxing, sleepiness to it, something to snooze with, no?

9 in a hammock.

Alex Bellos' book on adventures in mathematics is called Here's Looking at Euclid, (Simon & Schuster, 2010).

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Comments [15]

trixie from NYC

42. Because it is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

Aug. 06 2011 07:08 PM
Brandi from Texas from Austin, Texas

123. I like the sense of order in consecutive numbers, like when it's 3:45 in the afternoon or your bill total is $7.89. They feel tidy. 123 stands out to me because it's my birthday (January 23) and 2+1=3. Simple, I know. But that's what I love about it :)

Aug. 01 2011 11:21 AM
Laura from Denver

"28" I like the roundness of 2's and 8's in general, but this became my favorite number because of a best friend who loved Joey Cora whos number at the time with the Mariners was 28. We were maybe 14 at the time.

Jul. 27 2011 12:17 AM
Helen from Philadelphia

Did Robert really use the word "pimping"?

Oh, and I'm an advocate of 4.

Jul. 26 2011 09:09 PM
craig berger from uiet

i like 11. two love partners standing together against the sky.....maybe by some quiet water
they are equal and without the other one they are so so alone...can't be as whole when you are just 1
of course, i could also use examples like many of you did....11 on a football team;
11 in dice wins; 11 children in the family of my next door neighbor; 11 minutes until i have to go to rehearsal; 11 mid-nights last year that i stared at the moon etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc

Jul. 26 2011 03:39 PM
Brian from Seattle, WA

.08
I have a football jersey with this number.

Jul. 26 2011 01:22 AM
Peter from Aus

When i was a kid I liked 3, I think its a good honest number one u can trust. U gotta love 331/3.
As a teenager Id would have said u cant go past root2
but now as an adult Id say sqrt -1 is way cool

Jul. 25 2011 06:09 AM

5 is my cosmic number -ones birth date added together, I had a dressy rugby shirt with a big 5 on the back before I new it was "my number".
Purposes of numbers go back to meaning, like AGE! [teen=puberty] an ultra human reality. Also measurement, like where your 2 feet have to go [or shouldn't...quantifying, like the reflection of price[#'s]]; or TIME, 1849 -the 49ers-lat38- the steam engine/potato famine... But if ambiguos conspiracy "adds up" the quantification is shifting the decimal point [onpoint or cryptic diameters] sheep-herding an obsessed collie dog cloaking 1 nation [under dog] on-track, trinity of sanity... endo 1000 points of rules-let or compass [vortex?lol] 180 of culture. or breathing-mindlessly [yoga 1,2,3'1,2,3], 0r rounding off [.007] too' the blissful zero -concealed justice above the hoard of greed [$.99? let's hoard!] plus taX or after seX? is Algebra of ambiguity ok? fore[score] justice may be periferial 180 truth or 0... Calculating trajectories [7, 8, 9],,,, yet branding history whilst innocent denoMINators fears the math will reveal subliminal justice inn the contradictory numerator through depths Mark Twain nominally tempered by simply saying it was cold [here sheep er wolf?!: downey spaceship] Geometry can center X truth FilED... but Geography [geology/%/history] is a "vortegen"[?] of youth Positive or Negative and that 'brand' may be counted== ambivelent of the denominator, like a color in a prism to culture-blind depth... Da Vinci's reflection read... or blue, the traffic lights of engine engine number 9,,, or poetry in a molecular paradigm.
Not to gamble, but what if your # is 1,000,000 miles or kms away? would 13 be too soon? .007%. 2B prime>

Jul. 25 2011 03:23 AM
joey

8 is my favorite number. it always seems to come to my mind first naturally. First thing to pop into my head. Never fails. 8.

Jul. 24 2011 10:44 PM

17 for me, the ID number on the QA stamp issued to me 42 years ago. The start of an eventful career in Aerospace Engineering. I've had other numbers since then, but BHW 17 is the only one that felt a real affinity for.

Jul. 24 2011 09:41 PM
George Woodrow III from USA

My favorite number is Pi, followed by i.

Nothing in the survey specified that the number had to be a natural number.

Of course, e to the power i * P1 Plus 1 = 0, so there is an integer involved.

Jul. 24 2011 06:27 PM
Jesse from New Hampshire

13. Mother's birthday, First date with my wife, and number of years we've been married. That and I like going against superstition. I even own a black cat.

Jul. 24 2011 05:03 PM
Erika from Los Angeles

I also have this strange attraction to numbers and how I use them to interact with people. I'm not a math enthusiast but for example I find myself always asking peoples favorite numbers and I've deducted more from that and the person than what he or she is actually wearing.

Jul. 24 2011 12:32 PM

Nice praise for 9 but it just doesn't have the symmetry of 8 or the majesty of infinity when turned sideways. And, there is no great novel called Nine, but there is a totally terrific book called Eight! Can you tell that I love 8?

Jul. 23 2011 10:36 PM
Morgan from Cambridge

9 is also my favorite. I like it because it feels like the cool, older sister of 1-10 numbers. 9 is mature without being as straight laced as ten. 9 is the first odd number that isn't prime. She's odd in her free time but still keeps her day job.

Jul. 23 2011 06:45 PM

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