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For the Love of Numbers

Friday, May 02, 2014 - 03:15 PM

Image by Henry Reich

It’s hard to think of anything more rational, more logical and impersonal than a number. But what if we’re all, universally, also deeply attuned to how numbers … feel? Why 2 is warm, 7 is strong and 11 is downright mystical.

 

 

In this short, writer Alex Bellos tells Robert how, from the very first time humans ever used numbers, we couldn’t help but give them human-like qualities. From favorite numbers to numbers that we’re suspicious of, from 501 jeans to Oxy 10, our feelings for these digits may all come down to some serious, subconscious inner-math….a deeply human arithmetic buried in our heart.

Guests:

Alex Bellos, Greg Rowland and Steve Strogatz

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Comments [135]

Guy Unger from Netherlands

I have always seen even numbers as the more male ones and odd as female. My favorite number has as long as I can remember always been '2' though I have no idea why, it just feels like a very pleasant number to me

Sep. 18 2014 08:37 PM
Raisa from Los Angeles

I have synesthesia and I have the rarest version which is called Ordinal Linguistic Personality (OLP). Synestheisa in general is a neurological phenomenon "in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia)

And OLP is a form of Synestheisa in which ordered sequences (numbers, days, months, letters, etc.) are associated with personalities.

An example of an synesthete's relationship with numbers is something like this: "1, 2, 3 are children without fixed personalities; they play together. 4 is a good peaceful woman, absorbed by down-to-earth occupations and who takes pleasure in them. 5 is a young man, ordinary and common in his tastes and appearance, but extravagant and self-centered..."

Aug. 14 2014 03:02 PM
Ra'Maun Baker from Arkansas

I have listened to the podcast and i loved the people were talking about their favorite numbers and giving their reason behind it. My favorite number is the number 15, my favorite number is the number 15 because it can be divided more than one whole number.

Aug. 14 2014 07:23 AM
Justin

I just listened to this podcast, so I'm really late to the show. However, I am amazed that not only do people have favorite numbers, but that they are just regular old numbers. When Alex Bellos first brought it up, although like him, I thought, "why would you have a favorite number?", I expected people's responses to be about actually interesting numbers that appear in equations because they seem to be inherently important. Numbers like e, pi, i, phi, etc. Liking the number seven seem so arbitrary. However, pi is the ratio of circle's diameter to its circumference -every circle, in any number base. The number e is highly related to pi, so it also shows up in circles, and both pi and e are used in myriad ways by devices you use every day because they inherit in the way the world works. Phi is the Golden Ratio. i is part of a orthogonal number system to the day-to-day ones we're familiar with. I can't say I have a favorite number, but man 3, 7, 9, boring, boring, boring.

Aug. 13 2014 10:56 PM
Matthew from Columbia, MO

When i was listening to this, i was pondering My favorite number and, like many others, it's 7. Even before there was theorizing as to Why this was the most popular number, the reason i came up with was "it seems more Prime than any of the other single-digit numbers."

Aug. 10 2014 01:59 PM
Jonathan Voght from TriBeCa

0. All numbers are an abstraction/representation of that which exists, but 0 is abstraction of an abstract idea; nothingness.

Jul. 30 2014 01:36 PM
Bunmi

So interesting! My favorite number is 8. It's not just about the shape of 8 but the actual math. For me, it's the "evenness" of 8 that makes me love it so much! The fact that the even number 2 can be divided into it 4 times and the shape further represents its evenness (divide 8 in half and you have TWO circles!). I love it!

Jul. 28 2014 05:59 PM
Judah from Seattle

Interestingly, the character for 7 in formal Arabic numbering looks like a capital "V" and the character for 6 looks like our common 7.

Jul. 23 2014 03:17 PM
sarah

42. 24.

Jul. 21 2014 06:59 PM
sarah

42. 24.

Jul. 21 2014 06:59 PM
sarah

42. 24.

Jul. 21 2014 06:59 PM
sarah

42. 24.

Jul. 21 2014 06:58 PM
sarah

42. 24.

Jul. 21 2014 06:58 PM
Bob from San Francisco

13 is my favorite number. 13 is the 6th prime number and also the smallest emirp (a prime that is a different prime when reversed) The number represents change. 13 is the age where a boy begins to become a man. multiples of 13 are also associated with times in ones life that are filled with change. people tend to consider change a bad thing because of a desire to cling to the past and what is comfortable. But if one embraces change wonderful possibilities exist.

Jul. 19 2014 02:06 PM
terry from Maine

I'm not wild about 7 but it is unique in its own way.

9 rules.

9 divided by 1 - 9

by 2 - 4.5

by 3 - 3

by 4 - 2.25

by 5 - 1.8

by 6 - 1.5

by 7 - 1.2857142 (and counting)

by 8 - 1.25

by 9 - 1

Jul. 18 2014 04:44 PM
Tom from New York

Just listened to the favorite numbers podcast.

7 is also the first non-consecutive prime number (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 7, 11, etc.)

FWIW, especially for those who like prime numbers...

Jul. 18 2014 12:16 PM
Terry from Maine

9 rules.

Take any 2 figure non-palendromic number, such as 89. Reverse and subtract the smaller from the larger - 98-89=9. Divisible by 9 every time. Add them together and the result is divisible by 11 - 98+89= 187, aka 17x11. Note also that the two integers add up to 17. (Just spotted that myself after 35 years!!)

Take any 3 figure non-palendromic number, such as 487. Reverse, subtract smaller from larger. Result is divisible by 99, keep doing it and you will arrive at 99.

784-487=297, aka 99x3.
792-297= 495, aka 99x5.
594-494=99. Works every time.

add together the integers in any number and if they add up to a number that is evenly divisible by 9, the number itself is divisible by 9. If they do NOT add up then the number is not divisible by 9.

E.G. - 2309978546 - integers add up to 53, not evenly divisible by 9, ergo the number is not evenly divisible by 9. Never fails.

Jul. 17 2014 10:51 PM
Tony Chang from NYC

If you think that "0" is the first number, go check out the history of Zero.

It is probably the most important and abstract 'number' there is.

Jul. 17 2014 10:40 AM
John from California

Zero is the first number. You count, 0, 1, 2, 3 or 0, -1, -2, -3 etc. You always start with zero! But most people ignore zero. It is the first number in the numerical system, and highly, highly important.

Jul. 15 2014 10:31 PM
Max from New York

I really dislike 7. Maybe my least favorite number. I noticed that I got offended that it was "voted" the most popular and immediately felt silly.

But yeah, 3 all they way. 3,9,21,27,42,57. All multiples of three, I like them all. 6 though. 6 can die in a hole.

Also, 7 should be renamed to have one syllable, I find it inconvenient to count. I prefer "Sev" to "Seven".

Jul. 04 2014 05:04 PM
Preeti from California

The number system did not originate in Iran/Iraq the decimal system originated in India, was then taken to the west by the Arabs that invaded India. The earliest writing of which are as old as 458 AD. http://www.vedicsciences.net/articles/history-of-numbers.html

Jul. 04 2014 04:28 PM
Matthew from New York

I don't know if anyone has already stated this, but 7 is the ONLY number between 1-10 with two syllables. This could be related to the reason why 7 is the most liked number.

Jul. 04 2014 10:36 AM
Greg from Jersey City

I unfortunately just got around to listening to this and am kind of shocked by how I reacted. Mostly that I disagree so much with most of the world liking 7. It's actually upset me to the point of wanting to debate people and prove to them that 8 (my preferred single digit) is superior to 7. Just thought that was kind of strange.

Jul. 02 2014 02:05 PM
LinguistArtist from tacoma

I was terrible at simple arithmetic, still am. For me, each number had a personality that was to me more fascinating than the number itself:

1, just ok,
2 better, well meaning, good intentions,but waiting for 3
3 very stable, useful as a middleman, liaison
4, a loyal friend, dependable always
5 business like, fair, but private,
6 busy, like a bagger at the grocery store, keeps things moving,
7 -NO! Lazy!Screws everything up - slows everything down, shiftless, slacker, but egotistical, a show-off, while the others are doing their best.
8 -very very solid and dependable, I always respected 8, always helpful, tries hard, accepts it will always be junior to 9,
9 who doesn't really deserve the credit it seems to get just for being next to 10.
10 is the goal, the ticket taker at the booth, the checkpoint that after you get by you are free to travel about and can't get lost as long as you keep 10 in sight -- not much personality, just a landmark.

My favorite was 8. I liked 8 for its uncomplaining attitude, had to clean up 7's work, never complained just prepared the way for 9 and 10.

I felt these very strongly, they had conversations amongst themselves
argued, and earned me failing arithmetic grades throughout elementary school.

PS in China, the phone numbers are longer than 7 digits (too many people for just 7) and yet they are memorized, so maybe the Chinese have a way of thinking of numbers that sees them in clusters, or maybe it has to do with the language, which requires interpreting tones and inflection to understand the word.
I believe it was radiolab that ran a show about so many Chinese having 'perfect pitch' being maybe due to that need to hear nuances in pitch. Maybe this has something to do with the ability to memorize ' longer' numbers?

Jun. 29 2014 03:46 PM

The "male/female" thing about numbers creeps me out, especially as described in one of the comments. It bothers me that anyone would consider male and female different, as the whole point of that "truth" is to rationalize unequal treatment and assessment of abilities. Of course that might be related to me being a sports-loving math and science inclined straight female who finds the whole "gender identity" thing puzzling. In short, I'm human married to a human.

I like 8, my husband likes 9, and once we found that out when we first met, we use 17 too. To me, 8 is like a fist, strong. And regarding another comment, I'm atheistic so I don't relate the idea of "lucky numbers", when not applied to the level of superstition, to religious beliefs. I have liked 8 since I was a kid and it happened to be backed up by my zodiac sign which has 8 as its number. However, being mathematically inclined, I like most numbers and look for patterns in them too. I don't think there is any number I dislike or hate.

Jun. 24 2014 08:13 AM
Judy from San Diego

I love this discussion. I have always had strong feelings about the character of numbers, up to at least 3, maybe 4, digits. I thought it was a math geek thing, but maybe not...

Jun. 20 2014 09:23 PM
Brady Dale from Brooklyn, NY

My favorite number is 17. It has always felt like the true oddball of numbers. I think I already liked it before my Freshmen year of college, but I had a quirky Math prof who taught Calc I freshman year, and whenever he needed to throw a constant into an equation, it was always '17.' I think that sealed the deal between me and 17 forever.

Jun. 15 2014 11:02 AM
Reid from Honolulu, HI

Late to the party, but I think it's simpler than that. Dice have been around for a long time and seven is the most common sum. It wouldn't surprise me if there were dice long before most could understand the probability of a seven and were shocked and amazed that it would come up so often.

Jun. 12 2014 12:05 AM
Jay from New Mexico

I was a little surprised that people are surprised that odd numbers are male and even numbers are female.

Split an odd number in half and right there in the middle is another number. For example, right in the middle of 11 is 6 with five numbers above and below. That middle number sticks out like - well - a distinctively male organ.

Split an even number in two and in between the halves is a space. Again, I am looking for a polite way to say that space conjures up femininity.

I think the Greeks were the first to look at numbers this way. They also thought that 10 is a perfect number because it is the sum of 1 (the first number), 2 (the first female number), 3 (the first male number), and 4 (the first square).

Jun. 09 2014 03:23 AM
Rob Neyer

I noticed some years ago that comedy writers often choose 37 when they need a "funny" number, and so now I simply assume that 37 is the "funniest number".

Jun. 06 2014 05:23 PM
Tassie52 from 42° South

This whole discussion is deeply rooted in culture. None of this makes any sense to someone born and raised in a non-numerate society. For example, I lived with a people whose only "numbers" were 1, 2, mobs and big mobs. Favourite number? Meaningless. Gendered numbers? Meaningless. And so on.

Jun. 06 2014 08:09 AM
Sam from Traverse City, Michigan

Another bonus for seven is that in the game of Sorry you can split the number and get one of your pieces home.

Jun. 04 2014 10:05 AM
Leah from Montpelier VT

I was listening to the podcast on remixing radio lab and noticed how much numbers were mentioned in one of the remix. I noticed that the number seven was used a lot. I would cool to find out what the most popular number is used on the show. I would love to know.

May. 30 2014 12:06 PM
Dave from Pasadena

Attention Statistics Instructors: Ask introductory students for their favorite numbers to illustrate simple distributions and statistics. [You will find that 3, 7, and 8 are always among the most popular, as the blog reports.] Then compare the numbers from the back row of students to the front row, writing down beforehand that you predict that the front row will have HIGHER average numbers than the back row. If the samples are large enough, your prediction will be confirmed around 90% of the time, as I have found after 30+ years of this exercise. The front row students will choose a higher number of 7's and 8's. It's a trap to be sucked into an "explanation" about this result in terms of student aspiration, intelligence, alertness, conspicuousness, personality, or whatever.

May. 29 2014 01:32 PM
Ken from Salt Lake City

Surprised the number 9 isn't considered a favorite number. Seems to possess mystical qualities, at least to this amateur number appreciator. Consider the following number.

12345678

sum as single digits: 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8=36. Sum single digits again: 3+6=9

Now add 9 to original number: 123456789

1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9=45 4+5=9

Adding number 9 doesn't change outcome, works with any number.

There are other examples, seems # 9 is operator for some silly predictor games I've seen on internet, the ones pretending clairvoyance, but require some arithmetic.

And most important, Number Nine was a song included on Beatles "White" record, the most compelling argument to consider # 9 as favorite number. :>)

May. 27 2014 10:45 AM
Dylan

My favorite number is i. It's a number that doesn't exist at all, but can be used to make calculations about numbers that do exist. That's like me, a biologist, using an example about unicorns to make discoveries about sparrows.

May. 26 2014 09:57 PM

In A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the number 42 is said to be the answer to the meaning of the universe question. I've always wondered why 42 was chosen. My theory is that 7, the universally perfect number, and 6, the number that commonly represents evil, were multiplied together.

May. 24 2014 02:44 PM
Paul from Hayward, CA

I am a middle school math teacher and I just listened to the podcast this morning. I decided I would share it with my classes, but only after taking a poll of the students' favorite numbers. In four of the five classes, seven was the most popular favorite number.

May. 23 2014 04:48 PM
Amy from Wyoming

I do not have a favorite number.
I also do not believe in God. Or, actually in homeopathy, juju, astrology, the shroud of Jesus. I just don't get it.

Are people who do have favorite numbers more likely to also to incorporate faith into their belief systems? Do wider cultural belief systems follow this pattern? Or maybe I'm over-thinking favorite numbers.

May. 23 2014 12:08 AM
Amy Nagler from Wyoming

I do not have a favorite number.
I also do not believe in God. Or, actually in homeopathy, juju, astrology, the shroud of Jesus. I just don't get it.

Are people who do have favorite numbers more likely to also to incorporate faith into their belief systems? Do wider cultural belief systems follow this pattern? Or maybe I'm over-thinking favorite numbers.

May. 22 2014 11:54 PM
Kathy Johnson

After listening to this podcast, I just had to comment on my brothers favorite number. He was born on my parents 7th anniversary, he weighted 7lbs. 7 oz., in the year '49 (square root to 7) and his name is Steven, remove the t and it spells seven. Needless to say his favorite number is 7.

May. 22 2014 10:17 PM
Robin from Washington, DC

I immediately though of psychology's "magic number 7 plus or minus 2". The average person can keep 7 chunks of information in working memory, which is why telephone numbers have 7 digits, as others have mentioned. From this perspective, 7 represents using your human potential to the fullest. The magic zone between bored and overwhelmed where humans can achieve "flow" experiences. The average person can picture the first seven digits in their mind, all at once. (Or seven *anythings*.) But for most, eight is too many. So it seems reasonable that there is a comfort in 7, and also something exciting or interesting because it is right at the edge of that comfort.

Since the "magic number 7" is a fundamental property of human thought, it seems more compelling to me than arithmetic or geometric explanations. It does lead us to the next interesting question: Why did humans evolve to be able to handle 7 pieces of information, and not some other number? Maybe *that* has something to do with the 7 visible celestial objects...

May. 22 2014 09:30 AM
Matias

Hey! Awesome episode. I just found this article the other day that might be worth a followup.
http://www.newrepublic.com/article/117608/chinese-number-websites-secret-meaning-urls

May. 20 2014 10:31 PM
Georgia from Moretown, VT

hey guys i don't know if anyone has mentioned this yet but maybe seven is the world's favorite number because the human brain can only easily remember seven numbers, and that is why phone numbers have seven digits. At least that is what I have heard; I don't know if it is true.

May. 20 2014 04:10 PM
Richard from Warren, CT

Amazing, 7 is my fav number as well. Guess I'm a "regular" guy.

May. 19 2014 04:20 PM
Lucas

Surprised that there was not one mention of synesthesia during this whole episode, as it truly explains a lot of these phenomena. For those interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synesthesia

May. 17 2014 05:42 PM
Chris

No mention of the number 3 ?
Very significant in the ancient world and in world's religions.
Worth an entire radio lab episode by itself ...

May. 17 2014 03:16 PM
Elle from New York

I thought the bit about the personalities of the numbers; I definitely do this, but I think I relate the shape of the numbers more to facial expressions. For example, 6 is kinda pouty, 2 is slightly smug, and 5 is cheerful. But they're not really gendered. However, I do also have synesthesia, which means that for me, numbers each have a color as well as a general feeling. Odds are sharp, spicy or sour, hot and high (in space); while evens are round, earthy, cool, watery and low. I know this sounds totally weird, but it's always been the case.

I don't think I have a favorite number, though. I don't have a favorite color, either; I think there's a perfect number or color for a particular situation, but I wouldn't say one is "better" than the other objectively. Because of the color synesthesia, though, I do find certain combinations of numbers to be more attractive than others. My phone number is really pretty, for example.

May. 16 2014 04:04 PM
charlesly from suburbs

I thought the best part of the show was the quickly interjected "What?" by Jad at around 5:19, 5:20.

May. 16 2014 01:39 AM
Cassidy from NJ

At about the time that this episode aired, I had just read up on the origins of the 501st Legion -- the Star Wars costuming organization made popular by its appearance at the San Diego Comic Con in addition to members' efforts and passion. They explain on their website that the "501st" was devised from the founder's own numerical aesthetics -- 500 was a nice enormous number, the "f" sound sounded good, and the addition of the "1" gave an illusion of authenticity. This episode elaborated further on seemingly illogical preferences for numbers.

May. 15 2014 11:07 PM
William from Silverton OR

Whenever I ask someone "How's it going--on a scale of 1 to 10", 7 is a very popular answer.

May. 14 2014 08:50 PM
Ben

Interesting idea: In Jewish mysticism, 7 represents nature and natural law. There are seven days in a week, seven days in the biblical story of creation, seven musical notes before the 8th repeating note in an octave, 7 colors in the rainbow that the average human eye can recognize-- this list goes on and on. On the other hand, in kabbalistic thought, 8 represents the supernatural (idea of seven heavenly spheres and God outside the seventh, 8 days before circumcision to represent the supernatural bond with God, in the Hannukah story the candles burned for 8 days,etc). People are more comfortable with natural things-- perhaps the obsession with 7 is in some way an extension of that.

May. 14 2014 11:03 AM
lions20

It is kind of a peculiar that we give such emphasis and emotion when we display certain numbers. Every person has a number that is dear to them and appeals to certain numbers in different ways. How can such a emotionless creation have such an emotional impact on our daily lives?

May. 13 2014 08:15 PM
Jeff Wu from Santa Clara, CA

Two is my favorite number because so many beautiful mathematical ideas are based on it---Euclidean space (or more generally Hilbert space), duality (dual spaces, Fourier duality, Lagrange duality). It is tends to be the first number where things get interesting, such as using base 2 for number representation, or how many classical game theory problems can be most simply described with only 2 agents. It is also frequently the *last* level of approximation we can practically handle---we almost never deal with 3rd order approximations and beyond, but very frequently deal with 2nd order approximations.

May. 13 2014 07:35 PM
Alex

3 is a magic number! Although, my birthday is 7/11 and that sounds much sexier.

May. 13 2014 07:26 PM
Mike from San Francisco

11 and 7 are clearly the best....

Spinal Tap - "These go to eleven"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xgx4k83zzc

Seven Costanza

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NRUdaWZ4FN0

May. 13 2014 05:53 PM
Beth Bishop from Austin, TX

In first and second grade we had endless sheets of practice addition. It was more dull than I could imagine or bear. I turned the single digit numerals into personalities so that I could watch the soap opera of the numbers each day. There was nothing unusual in the personalities or genders assigned. But, each even number was a female and each odd number was male. The super star of the daily numeral show was 7. 6 and 8 struggled for him each day. I was actually 6 years of age. So, I rooted for 6 to win against the sophisticated 8. Sometimes she did win. Sometimes she did not.

I loved hearing Pythagoras's thoughts on numerical gender assigment. Thanks!

May. 13 2014 02:58 PM

And there is the club med 45 story. Apparently in 1995, the French resort chain Club Med create a series of T-Shirts with the number 45 on them, to celebrate their 45th anniversary. The shirts were selling like crazy. Everyone wanted them. in 2000 they figured, hey, it's now 50 years, this worked so well 5 years ago, let's make shirts with 50 on them. No one wanted them. It's been 18 years since they started making them, and to this day the 45 T-shirt is one of their most popular items. Go figure.

https://www.google.com/search?q=club+med+45&safe=off&es_sm=91&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=91lxU9vjNoLqoATdiYLoCg&ved=0CEkQsAQ&biw=2495&bih=1488#imgdii=_

P.S. My source for the story is the lady running the gift store in the (now defunct) Beldi Club Med village in turkey. I did not truth check.

May. 12 2014 07:44 PM
Paradoxical Tourist

Pi. It's where you want to be. It's the universe's one. Try breathing without pi, you can't. (the cycle of respiration) Try seeing without pi. you can't. (wavelength of light) Everything everywhere is filled with pi.

Pi makes me want to sing:
It has to be pi, you ear or your eye, it has to be pi!

May. 12 2014 09:19 AM
Nebish from Perth, Australia

7 interests me because of its fractions:
1/7 = 0.142857 recurring
2/7 = 0.285714 recurring
3/7 = 0.428571 recurring
4/7 = 0.571428 recurring
5/7 = 0.714285 recurring
6/7 = 0.857142 recurring
Once you know the first decimal place, the sequence is predictable, without having to calculate.

May. 12 2014 03:12 AM
Dan from Boston

This could be over simplified, but I believe Sesame Street deserves some credit. I can't help but think a generation of people started to attribute feelings towards numbers with those one minute "Count" clips and cartoons.

May. 09 2014 02:16 PM
Jonathan from Porsgrunn, Norway

I am not the first, but I have to weigh in on the subject of 7. It is so fundamental to the way space is ordered. Start laying identical coins down on the table in a cluster. No matter what you do with 2 through 6 coins there is no fully enclosed center coin. At 7 you can create a hexagon with all 6 outer coins touching each other and the center. For the first time you are able to enclose one of the coins. Suddenly you have a stable interior. This symmetrical arrangement of 7 circles is built into the way nature orders itself from (yes, as previous comments have noted) bowling pins, to beehives. A little visual for radio, but still I'll bet RadioLab could find one or two interesting to do with this.

May. 09 2014 04:38 AM

For the Love of Numbers' "The math got into the culture" + Jad's first of three Ancient Garbage Greatest Hits from Detective Stories = female 6 * male 1 * female 6... The Number of The Beast, 616, "used to either summon the best or to keep the beast away because you can't say [The Beast's] name directly". So... if we're making positive use of these two stories, what is the significance of 1.) 616 = The Number of The Beast, and 2.) 666 = The Number of The Beast, or, at least 3.) If The Number of the Beast has versions and the number 6 bears (bore?) some association with The Female, what is the significance of both versions having a greater number of 6s than 1s?

May. 09 2014 03:39 AM
Holden

I was a Mormon missionary for 2 years in Argentina. We knocked (or clapped) at a lot of doors in my two years. It was understood among us missionaries that 7 knocks or claps was the best number because 7 knocks has a complete sound to it. Even 20 years later I still knock with 7 taps.

May. 08 2014 11:21 PM
Jasmine from Ashland, OR

This is a very interesting podcast and makes me think of how I think of numbers visually. A tactic I would use in math class is to have a picture pattern to help me with addition and subtraction. I formed this in grade school and still use it today. I start from bottom to top.
30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 ...and so on.
20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29
19
18
17
16
15
14
13
12
11
10
9
8
7
6
5
4
3
2
1
Does anyone else have a visual pattern?

May. 08 2014 10:25 PM
Nate from Sacramento, CA

For Dr. Strogatz:

As Brandon from Tobaccoville, NC points out, 7 circles self-assemble into a hexagon. That is, If you take 7 pennies you can organize 6 of them around the 7th. The hexagon is an incredibly important shape in physics and nature. So, Dr., one can love the number 7 for many reasons including its beauty of assembly.

O O
O O O
O O

May. 08 2014 05:33 PM
ky87

It is strange to think that the whole way in which we represent numbers is only socially constructed. I had never thought about the connotations we attach to numbers that are either unrelated or intrinsic to their mathematical properties. Are we conditioned to respond more favorably to some numbers over others?

May. 07 2014 05:58 PM
Cormac from Minneapolis

I'm surprised that any aspect of synesthesia wasn't explicitly mentioned in this short episode (lack of time, most likely). Reading through comments, I do get a sense that there are other listeners out there who are aware of their own ordinal-linguistic personification of numbers, but does anyone else experience grapheme-color synesthesia associated with numbers?

May. 07 2014 02:44 PM
m from jakarta

My favorite number is i, sqrt(-1).

May. 07 2014 06:55 AM
Rochelle Gaertner from Florida

My favorite number is 13, and 23 (I can't pick just one!!). It's weird to think of my favorite numbers as masculine! Or unlucky for that matter! Since elementary school I remember thinking how different the number 7 was. That it is an awkward number that just doesn't divide nicely like most numbers do.

May. 06 2014 11:41 PM
Randy Philipp from Gaithersburg, MD

I have to say that my favorite number must be zero. The revolution that was caused by the idea of having a symbol for nothing certainly changed how to dealt with numbers. And one can argue that with the concept of zero and the use of zero as a placeholder in our numeral system, we would not have computers as we know them today.

May. 06 2014 11:07 PM
Gail Gurman from Portland, OR

My favorite number is 5364, just because I like the way it rolls off the tongue. It came to me when I was a teenager. Oddly, I think I remember where I was when I came up with it, but I don't remember why. I think I just said it as a "random" number and liked it. Now I'm 50 and I still like it.

May. 06 2014 07:17 PM
Random Commentor

Numbers carry so many meanings in so many different cultures and believes. For example, in Christianity God created the world in 7. How did we even choose how many days there are in year, week, month, hour, sec, etc? I don't think is surprising that people think numbers have personalities or characteristics. Many don't realize our whole life is dominated by numbers. They control people's actions, whereabouts and thoughts unconciously. There is no time to waste and we even put a price on it. Having a favorite number just adds to one of the many fantastic and mysterious ideas that originated as the concept develped. Numbers help get us through everyday life.

May. 06 2014 06:09 PM
bob minder from wbur

gematria is the jewish practice in which the letters have number value. it is a style of Scripture interpretation that links the numerical and semantic realm in a meaning enhancing way, put in the best light... nonsense say others... enough to drive you crazy, say yet others, which the greatest work of Yiddish Theater shows happen to the young scholar, Channon before becoming a Dybbuk... and a fun entertainment and avenue for establishing and nurturing the kind of Number Love this radiolab short was about.

As for me, I have many Number Friends, but the one based on Gematria includes my birthday number 26, which was the same number on the year I was born as the lunar calendar, one of those moderately rare synchronizations of the day of the lunar/Hebrew month and the secular date... but for me, being a person who believes in G-d, the Hebrew Letters for God, Yud Hay Vav Hay add up 10 + 5 + 6 + 5 to be Twenty-Six. Love God, love twenty-six, love my birthday. Which can all be said to be fairly mad, which is fine, except that my affection for twenty six is real. Bob Minder

May. 06 2014 03:30 PM

I love all the comments from people whining about what Radiolab is "supposed" to be. lol

May. 06 2014 12:51 PM
James C. Smith from Irvine, California

How could there be no mention of 42? I thought for sure it would be the wolds most popular number. It is after all the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

May. 06 2014 11:04 AM
Slant Perspective from Midwest

Sam from NYC's comment rubs up against the crux of the matter. Numbers have historically (going WAY back) had far more to do with shape and space than with the ghostly abstraction our modern minds invest them with. One of the guests of the show said that "seven doesn't have nice symmetry." But the fact is that all so-called "odd numbers" display symmetry. Seven, for example, may be expressed as:

1111111

Or, to arrange it so it's easier to see:

111 1 111

7 displays "centrality." Counting from either end of the construction, it's "center" is 4. Our "even numbers" don't balance this way.

And this is just one way to arrange 7. Sam from NYC notes another typical construction.

May. 06 2014 10:54 AM
Davide from London

Too short!!!!
This whole topic just needs at least 1hr episodes :-)
You jus touched on some topics that are a wells of interestingness!

Also, still haven't decided whether my favourite number is 13 or 17.

May. 06 2014 09:59 AM
Renee from new york, ny

Did anyone else notice that the guest speaker couldn't say penis?

May. 06 2014 08:31 AM
Veronica from NYC

I have always seen numbers (and letters) as gendered, though their designation was far more arbitrary than just evens vs. odds. However, I always liked the number twelve for its mathematical properties over it's aesthetics. It's so divisible for such a small number!

May. 06 2014 07:13 AM
Susan Lyons

Has anyone ever watched any of the tennis players bounce the ball before they serve? They hardly ever bounce it an even number of times, and it is often a "prime" bounce. I've done it myself and have had to acknowledge that bouncing the ball an even number of times doesn't "feel" right....

May. 06 2014 05:26 AM
Michael Gavron from Miami Beach, Florida

I have to share this: I caught my self patting my dog 13 times without trying to or even thinking about it..sometimes 7 would also come out. I think it is very interesting because these two numbers are prime! This makes me wonder if these prime numbers are actually in my brain naturally. Has anyone else encountered this?

May. 05 2014 07:41 PM
Ann from Oklahoma

Another great moment where I thought- wow! I'm not the only one! I've never thought of numbers having genders, but I have always had a strong sense of their personalities since I was a child. I was very particular about numbers I like and don't. 127 has always been my favorite.

I don't think it's a coincidence that I was pessimistic about last year- I was 31 in 2013- and I can't stand either of those numbers. Glad I'm not the only weirdo. :)

May. 05 2014 06:36 PM
Mike from Portland

129 for sure. Wonder how that fits in : )

May. 05 2014 06:21 PM
Laura

I loved this podcast. It was something I never really thought about before, but this episode made me consciously acknowledge my favorite numbers are 2 and 5.

When I tried to explain why, I thought it might be that they play well with others. They seem friendly. Like, I could imagine them being on a playground and going up to lonely 13 or 11 and saying, We can make something of you! Join all us other numbers over here! This explanation was especially odd because all my life, I've thought of myself as a non-conformist. But clearly, if I were, then 11 or 13 would be my favorite number.

May. 05 2014 06:19 PM
Cally from Ohio

As a kid a Double Bubble Gum wrapper told me my lucky numbers were 7 & 9. I have used them since as sports uniform number, Lottery picks (never won) or when ever I needed a number I include 7 or 9 or a combination including one or both. Not sure how lucky they are, but it makes me feel better for trying.

May. 05 2014 05:52 PM
Bob Smith from South Carolina

Interesting show. Thank you for doing it.

Growing up, my favorite number was 8. Don't know why, it just was. Interestingly, I remember trying to rationalize it after the fact, citing everything from it looking kinda like a sideways infinity (which was cool) to the fact that my home state was the 8th to ratify the Constitution and join the Union. (I was a weird kid.) Truth be told, I just have to go back to my earlier statement -- it just "was". It just "felt right". Can't explain it beyond that.

As I've grown older and gotten more involved in math (minored in it in college, still enjoy numbers today) I've found plenty of other numbers fascinating for various reasons (mathematical and otherwise), but 8 has always held a special place in my heart.

May. 05 2014 04:28 PM
Andy from Lake Wobegon

1401. Loved trains all my life, grew up in Atlanta and my favorite color is green, so big Southern Railway buff. SOU 1401 is the only Ps-4 class Pacific not scrapped when the Southern dieselized (she's in the Smithsonian). 1401 also contains 401, which is the displacement in cubic inches of the Nailhead V-8 that powered my first car.

51 runs a close second, as the rider number that's won the Tour de France more often than any other--even more often than number 1, which is worn by the highest finisher returning from the previous year.

May. 05 2014 04:13 PM
Jeff from Edmonton, Canada

I do like 7, but I've always been partial to 11 and 14, as well as 29. 29 just has a lot of significance for me such as my birthday, my Mothers birthday, The day of my Wedding etc.

I think though that its a bit of a stretch that 7's arrhythmic is inherent and easily understandable to make it special. While it is true, I think it is probably more likely that when its significance was discovered, it was highly regarded by knowledgeable people and was thereby engrained in culture.
I know for sure that I because aware of 7 not from my own thoughts but from cultural things like movies, gambling etc it is ingrained in our cultures that 7 is a lucky and special number.

May. 05 2014 02:33 PM
Joe, the xray guy from Omaha

Seven is the first nonmonosyllabic (word?) number we reach, it sticks out within the First Ten because of this. On the flip side, twelve is the highest one syllable number we have. I think 360 is cool because of its use as a circle and all the numbers we can divide into it.
Have you guys read "The Man Who Counted"- great number stories in there.

May. 05 2014 01:17 PM
Donna

I was disappointed to find that the discussion of the popularity and notoriety of the number seven didn't include any mention of dice or gambling. The number seven is the most likely number to be rolled on two 6 sided dice, making it thus "lucky number seven". Dice have been around for as long as recorded history making it very likely if not certainly the case that the number seven became lucky as a result of gaming and not because of any beauty, symmetry or mathematical properties of the first 10 digits.

That said I generally love the program.

May. 05 2014 12:54 PM
John from St. Louis, MO

You can arrange 7 with a hexagonal shape with one in the center...I like that symmetry a lot. Still, my favorite number is 13.

May. 05 2014 11:33 AM
Corey from Toronto

96 is the best number around - it is just so useful.. it is divisible by 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 12, 16, 24, 32, 48, and of course, 96.

My wife always thought I was odd because I had a favourite number - this is a very self-affirming moment.. :)

May. 05 2014 09:22 AM
scwp16

Before listening to this podcast, i had never given thought to if there was an underlying reason why people chose favorite numbers. For some reason i can understand why odd numbers seem masculine and why even numbers seem feminine, but I do not think that this has anything to do with a persons favorite number. I think that a persons favorite number has to do with somebody's experiences or preferences. I, for example, like 16 because it was my number in sports. I think this is the way many people choose a favorite number.

May. 04 2014 11:52 PM
Caleb Robey from Florida

This is such a strange concept. I often see numbers as one of the few immutably objective ideas in the world, but they are evidently far more than that. Somehow (and I now realize that I probably do this) we put a certain amount of emotional association with numbers, which seem to have no rational causes. It is just mysterious to me.

May. 04 2014 11:49 PM
Muffinstuffers123

I think it's particularly odd that people feel obligated to add emotional baggage to numbers. Numbers are but a tool we've used for over centuries and it amazes me that people think there is more to them. Numbers aren't the emotional part what they quantify is the emotional part, that guy who has that job to join them with promotional stuff is weird,,

May. 04 2014 11:42 PM
Kevin Tuskey from Richmond, Virginia

With all the talk of 7 being the world's favorite number, I was surprised to hear no reference to the classic Seinfeld episode where George Costanza comes up with an unorthodox baby name:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NRUdaWZ4FN0

May. 04 2014 10:45 PM
asdfljk

Kind of stupid, but i guess he was right, numbers do feel different (at least to me), even though it doesn't make much sense. That's insane though that this guy's job consists of companies hiring him to market their products with numbers that supposedly get their message across better.

May. 04 2014 10:35 PM

As someone who has always been good at math and, honestly, prefers it to other subjects, I have never attached any emotional "baggage" to any number. It is possible that somewhere in my subconscious one number is more attractive than another but directly I agree with the man who did not understand what all the excitement was about with favorite numbers. It is also extremely ironic that the majority of the world's favorite number is seven because it is unique. The number has become so completely the opposite of unique just because everyone is picking it just for this quality.

May. 04 2014 09:51 PM
Ed from Portland

At first my my favorite number was 13 because everyone was down on it (poor little number didn't do a thing to get all that hate) and you got to root for the underdog.
But once I hit the higher level maths I switched to "square root of -1"; it has so many fun implications that even infinity doesn't. Plus it has the added entertainment value of making people's neurons smoke when they try to grasp it.

May. 04 2014 09:37 PM
Elsa from Arendelle

I find it funny that people have biases towards numbers. I guess it could be the same reasoning as people having a favorite color or liking some shapes over others. Humans definitely connect their feelings to everything they can see (and even things they can’t see!). I can kind of wrap my head around the reasoning behind why 7 is the overall favorite, but why not 3 or 1 or 0?! I personally don’t have a favorite number, or digit for that matter.

May. 04 2014 09:16 PM

I have always wondered what made one number more popular than another. I'm not surprised that seven is the favorite number, especially since it is mine; however, I still am not sure why seven is so likable. I greatly agree with the comment that humans tend to connect feelings to everything they do and see.

May. 04 2014 08:56 PM
t47 from FL

Very interesting discussion! No surprise that 7 is everyone's favorite number. I'm on a soccer team and before every season some people fight for that number. I know that in some religions the number 7 is representation for wholesomeness or perfection. I gravitate toward some numbers more than others but I never understood why. For some reason I hate the number 5.

May. 04 2014 06:07 PM
Hunter from New York City

Just wondering, can you guys release a recording of everyone's responses? Or break down the releases by groups? I think it would be very interesting for us all to see what others said. I know I left a response, but I do want to see the other ones.

May. 04 2014 02:06 PM

It's interesting to see what people think of numbers. Some peoples reasoning's are ridiculous. How people see 1 as lonely and 7 as lucky is interesting. In other countries 7 is unlucky. O, 6, 8, 9 are auspicious numbers in Chinese culture. Number 2 is lucky because they have a saying " good things come in pairs". Number 3 is lucky because of the three important stages in life: birth, marriage, and death. Numbers are interesting.

May. 04 2014 01:29 PM
marshmallowkatie

This was a weird but fascinating NPR. I didn't expect anyone to have an interest in asking people what their favorite number is and then someone actually give an explanation of why that was their favorite number. Some of the reasons were funny because they just sounded ridiculous. Although when people were explaining the meaning of the number "1," it made sense to say that the number "1" means independent. I also find it interesting what people think about the number "11." Number "11" is an odd number that doesn't divide evenly in any way. It's a unique number. I found it fascinating that odd numbers are predominately toward males and evens toward females. It is a weird process that they had for that theory but made sense in a way. Numbers have a weird way in life and a weird meaning to people but the theories behind the numbers make sense to what the mind is thinking.

May. 04 2014 12:37 PM
ana from London, UK

ever since I heard about confirmation bias, I see it everywhere.

May. 04 2014 08:38 AM
Mike from Oakland

You guys left out an absolutely fascinating counterexample to the "7 is the world's favorite number" claim! In Japan, seven (shichi), along with four (shi), are extremely unlucky and undesirable numbers due to their phonetic proximity to the word for death, "shinu." Buildings often omit the 4th floor and gangsters drive around with 7s and 4s on their license plates intending to intimidate.

Food for thought!

May. 04 2014 12:53 AM
Sam from New York City

Place one bowling pin down. Now put a circle of bowling pins around it, as tight and dense as possible. Exactly 6 pins fit around, no cramming, no extra space, just a beautiful hexagon made of circle around another identical circle.

Take your 10 pin triangle and knock off each corner, you get the same beautiful 7 pin shape. I'm surprised your mathematician didn't notice this. It is basic tiling math.

May. 03 2014 11:22 PM
March from Your face

Lame. Boring. Radiolab sucks now.

May. 03 2014 07:59 PM
Stephen from Chattanooga, TN

I disagree with the reasoning why 7 is the overall favorite. It is simply a significant number. For example there are 7 colors in the rainbow, 7 musical notes,7 sins, 7 virtues, 7 elements of design, and so on. I think the number 7 is just impossible to ignore. I would say humans were mesmerized by the 7 colors appearing in the sky as if by magic long before the concepts of math kicked in.

May. 03 2014 06:37 PM
JB in MI from Michigan

Like Harry Nilsson sang, One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do.

May. 03 2014 04:11 PM

Everyone has always had a favorite number, but nobody is ever quite sure why. I feel that everyone knows it subconsciously but can never understand the underlying reason behind it, and I feel that the fact that RadioLab has gone in depth into defining numbers is interesting and that there are actual reasons that the brain defines a number and the reasons behind them.

May. 03 2014 03:59 PM
Kate

I favor the number 3. I associate it with the color green. When I became interested in photography (and took art classes) I wasn't surprised to learn about the 'rule of thirds'. A visual composition that most people find pleasing. I've never liked even numbers. I think because I find them to be too balanced and structured. ???

May. 03 2014 03:43 PM
xHeight

I gotta say... this episode literally said NOTHING important.

Break this down and basically they say what you already know. Numbers are subjective. People have different feelings based off unique experiences.

Radiolab really needs to step it up in their content. I feel cheated listening to this episode!

Also, happy face :D This is just my experience.

May. 03 2014 01:29 PM
Jean

you spent all that time and you never talked about zero...one which without, there is nothing beyond nine.

May. 03 2014 12:54 PM
Corinne from Cleveland, OH

Love Radiolab. Love. Four is my favorite number. Twice two, also two squared. And it's solid, dependable. One might consider it boring and one would be wrong. I do, however, remember spending a fair amount of time in my youth, resisting the appeal of three and seven. I made a conscious decision to turn away from the easy charms of those popular numbers, and I set my sights on the four, a number you can build on.

May. 03 2014 10:24 AM
Becky Robertson from Sydney Australia

As long as can I remember numbers have distinct personalities 1,5,6, and 7 are boys(5 is a fireman)2,3,4,8,9,and 10 are female. It has nothing to do with arithmetic. They're a group of people I've known a long time that have relations with each other.

May. 03 2014 08:54 AM
Julia from Miami

I recommend Daniel Tammet's Born on a blue day--he sees numbers as landscapes which enabled him to memorize pi out to something like 10,000 decimal places to raise money for a foundation! He has a similar emotional link to words that endows him with a remarkable gift for languages.

May. 03 2014 08:04 AM
Tom

I want to call b.s. on some of this. For example, the 10 in Oxy-10 has to do with the level of benzoyl peroxide and doesn't have much to do with marketing and feeling more regimented. The mysticism is a little silly to me.
But on a different note, I prefer Nigel Tufnel's explanation of why eleven and not ten: "it's one louder."

May. 03 2014 07:43 AM
kamizushi from Montreal

I guess I'm in disagreement with most people then. I like a number that allows me to do mental calculation easily, so I'd have to go with one. 7, on another hand is a disastrous number.

May. 03 2014 12:27 AM
Cris from Switzerland

Thanks for this nice podcast!
If you ask me why women are to 2 as man are to 1 I would say it relates to the pair of chromosomes that determine sex in humans. We could maybe say that women have "doubled chromosomes", XX(2) while men have unique chromosomes, XY (1)... does it make sense for any one else?

May. 02 2014 10:40 PM
Brandon from Tobaccoville, NC

Seven is easily arranged, in fact, seven is the tightest way of packing bundles of round objects, with the least space wasted. Looks like a flower, with one in the center and six around.

May. 02 2014 10:18 PM
Barb from Indianapolis

I like even numbers in general, and the numeral 8 in particular. It's a soft, feminine number. And it's a part of 18, my birthdate, and chai, which is life (in Hebrew).
It was interesting to hear that even numbers are feminine and odd numbers are masculine.
Also, though I'm not fond of the number 7, it's the number of days of the week and how many holes in the human head (as seen with the skin intact over the face), which makes it interesting.
As to the idea of 1 being man b/c of 1 penis, and 2 being woman b/c of 2 breasts… men have 2 breasts, too,though usually smaller than women's breasts (not always!)…. so that didn't work in my mind.

May. 02 2014 09:09 PM
TheAvenger

How can we really label or define numbers in general? I mean they're just symbols that we use in a variation of ways and fields. There's math, where we use numbers to solve logical equations and arrive at a solution by the set values of those digits. Then we can take it to a whole new spectrum, the educational system, where these symbols are used to desribe levels of intelligence or achievement on a test, on a subject, or a class in general, and where we're going to end up in life. With all these broad areas giving definitions to these numbers, how can one claim that 1 is for male, or that the number 2 is for female alone? It all really depends on our personal schemas of them in the end.

May. 02 2014 08:34 PM
Janna from Cleveland

Seven has always been my favorite number and I can't really explain why. I do remember being seven years old, sitting in my bedroom and writing the number 8 and thinking "I hate 8, I don't want to be 8". So the affinity for one number and dislike of another seems to be pretty deep rooted yet still inexplicable for me.

May. 02 2014 07:50 PM

The concept of numbers being associated with feeling is very strange to me. I have never had a favorite number and find this quite odd. Arithmetically speaking 7 being the world's "favorite number" makes a lot of sense to me but i question if the way we say the word effects any feeling towards it.

May. 02 2014 07:20 PM
Luke from London

Can't arrange 7 pins symmetrically?
It's the most symmetrical arrangement! see below...

o o
o o o
o o

Cheers!

May. 02 2014 06:56 PM
Katherine from Kentucky

I like 9. It is odd & while it is not prime, besides 1 & itself, it is only divisible by a prime number (3) to achieve the same prime number (3). I'm not at all a math person, but I do like puzzle games such as kakuro. I don't associate any adjectives with the number except handy. Why do I feel it is handy? I guess see above. 9/3=3 just seems convenient somehow.

May. 02 2014 06:14 PM
Ross Bennett from Texas

I was just a little bit sad my own favorite number didn't make the edit. It's the twelfth root of two. It's the multiplier between semitones of an equally-tempered (Western) musical scale.

Well, truth be told…I was furious about it, which is ridiculous, but I was indignant on behalf of my favorite number. Which is silly, isn't it? I guess there's something to this idea that people get invested in a number.

May. 02 2014 06:06 PM
Janet from Michigan

When I was growing up, our house number contained the string 802, our phone number contained the string 802, and our ZIP code also contained the string 802. You'd think 802 would be an obvious choice as my favorite number, but it's not. It's 7.

May. 02 2014 05:57 PM
fred from Austin TX

I was born on the 11th. The house my parents owned was at 811. The middle numbers of my social security number is 11. Currently, I live in apartment 211, previously I lived in the street address 2211. Finally, I'm a Gemini which looks like the number 11 in some symbols.

May. 02 2014 05:52 PM
Chris from Seattle

I'm a fan of 12. It's got it's own nickname: a dozen. Besides (maybe because of?) it's divisible by 2, 3, 4, and 6. How practical!

May. 02 2014 05:47 PM
Caitlin from Tucson

I loved this story. I have synesthesia and all of the male/female, feelings, color, etc. for each number makes perfect sense to me. My favorite number is 11, so I found the spices discussion very interesting. I love the number 11 because I find it simple, strong, clear/white in color, pure.

May. 02 2014 05:13 PM
David from Chicago

Great job everyone. This is the deeply investigative RadioLab that I love. Keep up the good work.

May. 02 2014 04:57 PM

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