PERFECT FIGURES

The Lore of Numbers and How We Learned to Count

by Bunny Crumpacker

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-312-36005-4
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Essays on the history and symbolism of familiar numbers.

Crumpacker (The Sex Life of Food: When Body and Soul Meet to Eat, 2006) goes through the digits in sequence. The essay on one is typical. It begins with generalizations: One is the beginning, from which all else grows, but before we became fully human, even one meant nothing to us. This segues into a discussion of counting, with reference to such early artifacts as a baboon thighbone incised with notches, much like those on a gunslinger’s pistol. Later came baked clay tokens to symbolize the items being counted—for example, jars of wine in a shipment. The next step was simply to draw the correct number of items directly on a clay tablet: the first shipping invoice. Crumpacker moves on from these simple uses of a number—and of the words for it—to more metaphorical and mystical uses, as for example the Pythagorean philosophers’ attribution of various qualities to particular numbers. The book runs the gamut of counting numbers up to twelve, with a special nod to zero, the key to our modern system of mathematical notation. It then jumps to a hundred, a thousand, a million and finally to almost unimaginably large quantities like the googol (one followed by a hundred zeroes) and googolplex (one followed by a googol of zeroes). At each step, the author remarks on a number’s inherent qualities. Six is a “perfect” number, for example, because “it’s equal to the sum of its parts. Six can be divided by one, two, and three, and if you add these numbers the sum is six. Perfection.” Crumpacker also provides folklore, such as which numbers are considered lucky. While mathematicians are likely to scoff, those who blanch at the notion of long division may find this the most entertaining section of the book.

Smoothly written and full of entertaining lore.