The fun facts about numbers that you didn’t realise you’ve always wanted to know…
3 – THREE
Three’s a crowd… or is it? Imagine you’re writing a story, how many lead characters would you have? One means a hero, two means a love interest, and three comes next. This is why three is so popular throughout history – it’s the first number that allows for a team, without any romance. It’s also everywhere in religion: Christianity has the Holy Trinity, of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; Islam has the three holy cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem; Buddhism has the three Treasures of Buddha, Darhm and Sangha; Taoism has three deities called the Three Pure Ones; Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu are the three Hindu Gods and even going a little old school there are the three Norse Norns: Urd, Verdandi and Skuld who weave the tapestry of our fate with each thread representing the life of a single person… certainly something to ponder.
3.142… – PI
Everyone’s favourite mathematical food and quite possibly the most famous mathematical constant. Mathematical constants are numbers that aren’t part of the usual number line and aren’t fractions, but pop up everywhere in maths. I’ve already mentioned root 2, the Golden Ratio and e in earlier articles to name but a few. Physics loves a good constant too – the gravitational constant G is a classic, and hands up if you’ve heard of h-bar? (If you haven’t don’t worry physics isn’t as cool as maths). Going back to pi, it’s of course most famous for circles. Take any circle, measure its radius (the distance from the centre to the edge) and then the area of the circle is given by pi r2 and the distance around the edge of the circle (also known as the circumference) is 2 pi r. The fact that this works for any circle, ever, anywhere, that has ever previously existed or ever will exist, is what makes pi such a special number. The only explanation is that it’s part of the fabric of the universe. And it doesn’t stop with circles, pi pops up everywhere in physics too. Einstein’s equations for general relativity, check. Newton’s law of gravity, check. Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism, check. I could go on, but I’d better get onto the next number… You get the point; pi is big news.
So big in fact, that you can watch a video I made for Pi Day (March 14th or 3-14 if you’re American) below.
4 – FOUR
Four is associated with symmetry, balance and stability. A table has four legs, lots of animals also have four legs (cows, sheep, pigs, lions, tigers, aardvarks, hippopotamuses…) and not forgetting even we have four limbs. There’s also the way we use four to divide everything up. There are four seasons in a year: winter, spring, summer and autumn, a compass has four points: North, East, South, West and there are four parts of the day: morning, afternoon, evening and night. The ancient Greeks went one step further and divided up everything in the world into one of the four elements: earth, fire, water and air. And their doctors believed that your body was filled with four liquids (which they called humors): blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. If you were ill in ancient Greece, chances are your doctor would remove some of one of these liquids as an apparent cure… leeches anyone?
Then there’s the four horsemen of the apocalypse. I was a big fan of the Darksiders video game series growing up so I know all about these bad boys. They are mentioned in the Bible, though it’s difficult to know exactly what each one represents – sounds like most of the Bible to me… One is definitely death, that’s certain. The other popular choices are conquest, war (pretty similar no?) famine, pestilence and plague. Yes, that does make 6, but hey it’s the Bible, anything goes…
Oh, and I almost forgot, maths loves four too. There are four main operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. It reminds me of the classic chat-up line: me plus you, subtract clothes, divide those legs and lets multiply… (crickets I know, but at least I tried).
You can find all of the funbers articles here and all of the episodes from the series with BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and BBC Radio Oxford here.