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Alex Bellos, bestselling author of Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, has
released a follow up, Alex Through the Looking-Glass.
The book explores the relationship between numbers and real life through
encounters with mathematical savants including the designer of the first
rollercoaster loop, a numerate private detective, and delegates to the World
Congress of Mathematicians.
Below is an extract investigating the import of numbers in different cultures.
When giving cash to newlyweds,
the amounts ¥30,000, ¥50,000 and
¥100,000 are preferred, although
¥20,000 is acceptable, in which case the
recommendation is to “odd things out”
by dividing it into one ¥10,000 and two
The aesthetics of odd numbers also
underpins the Japanese classical art
of flower arranging, ikebana, which
uses only odd numbers of items, an
influence of the Buddhist belief that
asymmetry reflects nature.
A meal of Japanese haute cuisine,
kaiseki, always comprises an odd
number of dishes, and, just so kids
get the message early on, the annual
celebration of youthful good health is
called the Seven-Five-Three festival, in
which only children who are three, five
and seven years old take part.
The Japanese taste for odd numbers
is so ingrained, wrote Professor Yutaka
Nishiyama of the Osaka University of
Economics, that when the government
released a ¥2,000 note in 2000 no one
ever used it.
Number superstitions are stronger
in East Asian countries than they
are in the West. These countries also
perform higher in international tests
of numeracy, indicating that strong
mystical beliefs about numbers
are not necessarily an impediment
to learning arithmetical skills.
Superstitions, in fact, may encourage
a respect for numbers, and an
intimacy and playfulness with them –
just like mathematics does.
The most widely held Asian number
belief is based on a pun. Because the
words for “four” in Japanese, Cantonese,
Mandarin and Korean (shi, sei, si, sa)
sound the same as the words in those
languages for death, the number four is
is based on an appreciation of the
dualities in nature, symbolized by yin
and yang, literally “shadow” and “light”.
Yin is associated with passivity,
femininity, the moon, misfortune
and even numbers, and yang with
their complements: aggressiveness,
masculinity, the sun, good fortune and
Again, we see a historical link between
luck and oddness, and this link is
especially strong in Japan, where, for
example, it is customary to give three, five
or seven items as a gift. Never four or six.
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2/06/14 4:04 PM
JULY 2014 | acuity
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