Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

So last year we had the dreaded 06/06/06, and lo! No apocalyptic beasts appeared in the heavens. This year, it’s our lucky day: 07/07/07!

Seven is considered a “lucky number,” a prime of a magical, mysterious signficance. So where does the source of this luck derive? Why, from the Bible, of course! At least in part. From LiveScience, 07/07/07: Is This Your Lucky Day?

The number seven is considered lucky due to its frequent and favorable appearance in the Bible, say historians.

“As the number of the days of God’s first week, of the levels of heaven…of the numbers of angels and trumpets, etc., the number came in the last few centuries BCE to represent divine perfection,” said David Frankfurter, professor of religious studies and history at the University of New Hampshire. “Something organized seven-fold meant that it corresponded to God’s own arrangement.”

Although the number seven has significance in the Abrahamic religions, Frankfurter neglects to mention the Seven Hills of Rome and the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Pythagoreans considered it a “perfect number.”

Frankfurter correctly notes that people grasp onto auspicious numbers in an attempt to exert control, albeit delusional, over the chaotic world:

“In our modern American society we have a tendency to look for magical ways to control the world or fate, so numerology is especially important for us,” Frankfurter said.

Sigh…But this is the nation in which a given percentage of the citizenry believes that the sun orbits the earth.

Numerology is on par with astrology: nothing more than magical thinking.

Other auspicious numbers derived from the Bible are four (archangels, gospels), five (books of Moses) and twelve (zodiac; the tribes of Israel). Lucky numbers vary from culture to culture. Four and eight are considered lucky in Chinese culture, but seven is a number of ill omen.

Fortunately, all this numerological mumbo jumbo can be washed away with such books as The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics by Stanislas Dehaene. I’m about a third of the way through the book, but have jumped around in the chapters.

Dehaene is a mathematician turned cognitive neuropsychologist, and as such, he offers a fascinating perspective on how the human brain processes mathematics. Like many other animals, we have a “number sense” hardwired into our brains. Comparison of quantities is a capability that crosses many species, and is an evolutionary adaptation which ties into avoiding predation, looking for food, and selecting the best mates. Higher order and more exacting math is a human construct. Our math has been evolved by our brains and for our brains.

Dehaene notes that there is nothing “magical” about the number 7. It is a cultural construct, and not something inherently associated with neurocognition.

Stay tuned for a more thorough review in the future. There are four books on my docket at the moment so it takes me forever to finish one with my scattershot approach to my reading material.

This entry gives a nod to my long-suffering scientist-hero, a fairly rational fellow, who would likely be the first to note that seven is just a number albeit a meaningful quantity in his case.

Comments

  1. #1 Kevin Beck
    July 7, 2007

    On October 9, 1987 (10/9/87), I totalled a car. No one was hurt, but given that some cosmic crackhead was trying to tell me that I needed to watch my ass every 11 (or 12) years, 1 month, and 1 day, it was with no small amount of trepidation that I sat down by myself to play Russian roulette on November 10, 1998; I reckoned quite reasonably that I might be in for more shit luck. (To be safe, I only loaded 5 of the 6 chambers in the .45 with bullets.)

    Still, I can’t be certain that on December 11, 2010, something grim won’t happen when I drink the pint of lye I’ve set aside for that day. You people who are dismissive of superstition — well, let’s just say I’ll say a little gypsy incantation for you…or against you.

  2. #2 Flyspeck
    July 7, 2007

    To Unix freaks, right now the time is 1183847766 (base 10). For other bases, make conversions. Doesn’t look magical at all to me.

  3. #3 ji
    July 8, 2007

    So if man is five and the devil is six than that must make me seven,

    This honkey’s gone to heaven,
    But if I go to hell then I hope I burn well,
    I’ll spend my days with J.F.K., Marvin Gaye, Martha Raye, and Lawrence Welk,
    And Kurt Cobain, Kojak, Mark Twain and Jimi Hendrix’s poltergeist,
    And Webster yeah Emmanuel Lewis cause he’s the anti-christ -BHG Fire, Water, Burn

  4. #4 natural cynic
    July 8, 2007

    You forgot the seven deadly sins to counter the seven cardinal virtues.

    It does seem that numerology is very big here in Vegas [big surprise]. There were at least 400 people waiting in line at 11 PM last night to get marriage licenses to get married today. The wedding chapels are expecting about five times the normal sunday traffic.

  5. #5 Paul Orwin
    July 8, 2007

    I hate to spoil the fun, but Pythagorean’s (and mathematicians more generally) don’t consider 7 to be “perfect”. A perfect number is the sum of all of it’s divisors (by definition). 6 is the first perfect number, which might be what you were thinking of.

  6. #6 Doc Bushwell
    July 8, 2007

    I hate to spoil the fun

    Well, dang, way to rain on a parade! You must be a real hit at parties.

    j/k…thanks for the correction.

  7. #7 Barney
    July 10, 2007

    For a previous related occurrence, look into the reggae group Culture’s release of “Two Sevens Clash” in 1977. There’s a bit here on wikipedia, but you can find a little bit more on the impact of the song on Jamaican society on 7/7/77 with a little googlery-pokery.