The Beauty of Numbers: A Memoir

08-08-08

August 8, 2008 was a special day in Stockholm. The telephone area code for Stockholm, within Sweden, is “08-”. There was organized and spontaneous fun and foolishness, such as water pistol fights between Stockholmers and groups of people from the north of Sweden.

Numbers have always fascinated me. I became aware of them first, and significantly, in kindergarten.

I would have been five years old to enter kindergarten, so it was probably September, 1942, just after we had moved into the new housing project near the “Cow Palace” in Daly City, bordering the the southern-most part of San Francisco. These were built for the “war workers,” including shipyard workers, as dad was for the duration of the Second World War. The rows of two-story concrete apartments were new and wonderful then, each family having its own separate living quarters, but connected and neighborly with the others. I did miss, however, being also with Uncle Harry, Aunts Bee and Angie and Grandpa. My sister Diane was then just an infant and not much use for company.

Kindergarten was a short walk away from 1822 Sunnydale Avenue, in the Visitacion Valley Community Center. The class was well disciplined. I enjoyed it, especially at the beginning of each day. Every morning, after the students had been brought to silent, standing attention by the teacher, we did three things: we recited the pledge of allegiance, our right hands, respectively and respectfully, over our hearts; then, hands still in place, we sang God Bless America—

God Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Thru the night with a light from above.

From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America,
My home sweet home.

And then, we recited the times table, from 1 to 12. This is where I fell in love with the number nine.

Consider the sequence: 9, 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, 72, 81, 90, 99, 108. Look at those digits! Each set of digits in each number adds up to nine or, in the case of the number 99, when you add the digits together you get 18, the digits of which number follow the same pattern. This was magic to me. I seemed to be the only one to see the magic in this, so I pretty much had this all to myself.

Eleven was interesting too, but only in a way more obvious to everyone else. It was too simple, until after 110. I could not intuit what the sequence should be after this multiple of 11, so I had to actually remember the next two numbers by burning a special place for them in my brain: 121 and 132.

Twelve was interesting too; it seemed a very royal kind of number, very grand. I especially liked 6×12=72. I could see, then or later, that seven of the nine digits felt comfortable inside 72: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 and 9. This left out 5 and 7, which made them kind of exclusive and special. I began to see that 7 was a particularly special number for me because I was born January 7, 1937. I took seven as my lucky number.

Number 5 seemed to be a sort of building block for so many things in life. A nickel was 5 pennies, and I liked nickels for their size, weight and shininess. There were two nickels in a dime and, magically again, five nickels in a quarter and, wonderfully, ten nickels in a half dollar—an awesome coin with the beautiful “walking liberty” on one side and the strong and powerful eagle on the other. It was sort of like a mother and father coin. Then, there were twenty nickels in a dollar, the same number as all my fingers and toes. I also liked the image of Thomas Jefferson on the nickel; he has such a nice and bold profile. I liked his home in Monticello, pictured on the back of the coin, too. We heard about his home in school.

In later classes, when I was bored (and this was often), I would doodle numbers on a piece of paper. I was always looking for patterns. One day I started to write down number is a row, starting with 0, then 1 and added the two previous numbers together to make the next number, and so on:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144…

I later learned that this was a well-known sequence, famously formulated by the mathematician Fibonacci, around the year 1200 A.D, although it was also in use in ancient India. This sequence and pattern is found in nature, everywhere, such as in the spiral curvature in the growth of flowers and sea shells; and, it is basic to the concept of the golden section, developed by the Ancient Greeks and Leonardo da Vinci in art, architecture and music.

Back to the number 5: even though 7 is my lucky number, I prefer to use 5 when gambling at the roulette table. Here is my usual pattern: I buy 20 chips of low value (50 cents or a dollar each) and plan for a minimum of four bets of five chips each, and a maximum of five bets.  I place one chip on the number five, and one chip each on the four corners of five, giving me ¼ of a chip bet on the numbers  1, 3, 7 and 9; ½ of a chip bet on numbers 2, 4, 6, and 8; and the value of 2 chips on number 5. I let the wheel spin four times, and if I haven’t won any chips, I leave the table. If I have won some chips, I leave the table after five spins. It’s always a thrill to hit number five and win 70 chips.

When I visited Japan in 1956 and 1957, during my stint in the U.S. Navy, I noted that the tea sets I was buying for my relatives back in California were all of five cups each. I was used to six in a set, but five seemed very intriguing to me. I later learned that even numbered sets are considered unlucky.

Over time, I have developed a liking for prime numbers and will always make a point of telling people that the number of their (or my) age is “prime:” 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, 97.

Now that we are in the digital age, with the number 2 as the basis for all the information we use, it gives me a warm feeling that I developed, in my high school years, a love of the powers of two. I also like the powers of three, but in a more limited sense. For instance, here is what I wrote to my youngest son for having achieved the age of three to the third power:

25 March, 2008

Alex, my son,

It is time for you to be inducted into the realm of .  Do not be alarmed nor try to understand. You may feel confident in being able, almost by autonomic reaction, to conjure the words in your brain and/or your larynx and associated organs: “three cubed;” or “the cube of three;” or “three to the power of three;” and so forth.

These are all, of course, mere human representations of that which cannot be represented by humans, or by any known mammal. The closest one can imagine for comparison is the name given by the ancient Hebrews to the entity in “heaven” governing all humanly observable forces on Earth, YHWH, an unpronounceable set of symbols. But this is quite inadequate an example.

You will have a visitation of the appropriate emissaries of , anon. They will not speak, but you will know. Go with them in confidence and trust. The initiation is physically painless but enormously instructive. Be open.

The rites you will undergo will prepare you for the next 3×5 years of growth and extracorporeal realization.

Thus begins the most important period of your life, wherein you will become eligible to receive the answers to “Life, the Universe and Everything,” at age 42.

Of course, I am preparing for the final rite, to occur when my earthly age, measured in solar years, reaches 3·3³.

Be cool.

Love,

Dad

Left to right: Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton, Alex Pavellas

Alexander Joseph Pavellas is a math tutor at U.C Santa Barbara

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About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate Californian living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles, memoirs, and creative writing.
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