The numbers game

The numbers game

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Chances are the day of this publication, July 7, i.e., 7/7, is your lucky day. Why? Many people believe seven brings them luck, whether it’s because of the seven days of the week, seven colors in the rainbow, seven continents or even the “7” Mickey Mantle wore on his back.

If you believe in lucky numbers, seven might give you the kind of confidence you need to say exactly the right thing in a job interview, to seek a date with a long-term love interest, or to swing at a fastball at just the right moment, sending the ball deep into the night.

Practically speaking, all those people who share that lucky No. 7 can’t be winners at the same time. What if a pitcher in a tight game, who is the seventh child in a family of seven and might have been born at 7:07, is pitching to a hitter, who grew up on 77 Main Street and who always bats seventh? Who would win?

Taking a step back from the “7” sports quagmire, what is it about numbers that can make or break our confidence, that can inspire or deflate us? Even for those indifferent to theorems and patterns, numbers can be beautiful and comforting. They can create order in a chaotic world, offering support and structure in their patterns and predictability.

There’s the alternating odds and evens. That’s a pattern that’s like looking at a checkerboard, with its alternating tiles. According to some news reports, zero presents a problem for some people because they are not sure whether it is odd or even and most odd/even discussions begin with “1” while evens begin with “2.” (Zero is an even number under the standard mathematical definition.)

Then there are those rules of numbers that can help in the prime versus non-prime consideration. If you’re looking at an odd number, how do you know whether it’s divisible by three? You add up the digits in the number and see if the sum is divisible by three. Take, for example, 4,197. The sum of four, one, nine and seven is 21, which means it’s divisible by three.

But then there are those well-known irrational numbers that provide memory challenges for schools. Some schools, on March 14 each year, hold a contest about the famous constant, pi, which is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Students commit as many digits of pi as they can to memory. Most people recall the 3.14 part of pi, which is why those competitions are held on March 14, but some push themselves to memorize more than a hundred digits.

Then there are those numbers that signal the beginning or the end of something. The famous countdown to a rocket launch that carries with it the hope of finding something new, of taking humans somewhere we’ve never gone, or of exploring or seeing the Earth from a different perspective. Parents know the famous mantra, “I’m going to count to three,” before a potential liftoff of another kind.

For the sports fanatics out there, numbers are the game within a game. For example:

How fast did he throw that pitch?

How many goals did he score in the World Cup?

How great was this player compared with another player?

Numbers are sliced and diced to make predictions, reconsider greatness or understand a player’s potential.

Perhaps the corollary to the question, “Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?” should be, “Would a superstar with a different uniform number play as well?” The answer might depend on the date of the game.