Thursday, July 05, 2007

What's in a number and other rambling thoughts

The title of this post may be misleading. This is not about mathematical numbers. In fact, mathematical numbers have a lot in them. This is about those "non-mathematical" ones; though numbers have to be inherently mathematical.

Also, this is not about numbers that have their place in nature. I agree that 365 (give and take a couple of days) days make a year and around 9 months is the human gestation period. But my post is not about that.

My post is about man-made numbers and whether we really need to attach so much importance to them. For example, the papers in Bangalore today scream - that this is one day in a thousand years that has 7'O clock, 7 minutes, 7 seconds, 7th day of the 7th month of the year 2007 and it turned out to be a saptami (7th day) in the Indian lunar calendar as well. And so, this is a great day and so on. In fact, last year we did have 6:06:06 6th June 2006. And next year will have a bunch of 8s and so on till 2012.

Now for a different take on it. 2007 is the year according to the Christian calendar. According to the Muslim calendar, this year is numbered something else. And in our Hindu calendar, it is sarvajit samvatsara and the number of the year in vikrama samvat is something else. What would happen if you calculate your date according to any other calendar? Would this headline be still valuable? And what if you measured your time in something like "radians" instead of hours and minutes? Are we mistaking things for units in which they are measured?

Then, you have the other one. Celebrities all over India wanted to get the Taj Mahal in the seven wonders of the world. Now my question to the organizers is : Why seven wonders? Why not 6? What did the other poor numbers like 11 do? Why not say, 35 or 53? Why is 7 any special?

For a number to be special to me, it has to have some counterpart in nature, a counterpart in something that is not man-made. "pi" is one such number. "e" is one such constant. "c" is another one. "h" is yet another. The number 15 as the period in days of our moon's waxing/waning cycle is another number. Two such cycles make a month. A year is fine as it signifies one revolution of the earth around the sun.

But Top Seven and Top 10 and Top 50 or Top 100 seem to be just made up.  What are the organizers trying to convey? That if the Taj Mahal is in the top 7, it is good and that otherwise, it is not? What if the Taj gets the 8th position? Will it stop being as attractive? In the seven wonders case, it looks like people are just having a good time promoting the Taj Mahal and all - which is fine, but is the hype justified?

Next you have the make or break numbers - ranks in education. The ranks themselves are fine, because they just correspond to the indices of a set of sorted marks. But ranks have notions of superiority and inferiority associated with them. The first ranker is somehow perceived as "superior" to the second and so on. But the examinations try to measure ability in a particular field. Rank and ability may not correlate well enough. The first ranker will be better than the ten thousandth one. But the fifth ranker may actually have more ability than the first ranker. But how else would you measure ability? It is an imperfect measuring system, but unavoidable, I feel.

Hierarchy is in our world whether we like it or not. Equality, the politically correct notion, does not have a natural counterpart. Ranks and numbers and our fascination for those reinforce this notion. Isn't it just easier in a limited period of time to see the "7 wonders of the world" rather than make the ranking ourselves? It is just that in these things, we trust the judgment of our fellow beings. We do that implicitly in other things anyway.

When we see two things as different, we begin seeing hierarchy. We can't just see two things and not have an implicit hierarchy formed in our mind. Dvaita philosophy - expounded by shrI madhva, in fact, declares 5 types of differences to be Absolute. Difference between God and the soul, difference between souls, difference between God and inanimate matter, difference between souls and inanimate matter and finally the difference between inanimate matter itself. And with a multitude of souls, Dvaita has a hierarchy of deities with Hari (Lord VishNu) being at the peak.

But who is it that sees the difference? We claim to know the world - but we just know what our senses and intellect tell us. The perceiver is still not "known". What does it mean for the knower to know oneself? This is the domain of several of our philosophies and not all of them are in agreement. Buddhism says there is no abiding soul. Advaita says that the soul is the same as the world and God. Dualist schools (most of the others including mainstream Abrahamic religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, our dvaita and vishiShTAdvaita) say that there is a Supreme Spirit called God and that It and the individual soul are different.

Isn't it strange that we don't know who we are, but, like in this post, ponder about the world and what we see?


Aram said...

Thanks for a long-awaited post.

Quite a novel topic and insightful interpretations.

The title, "What's in a number" made me think about the matka players and operators for whom the whole world revolves around the three numbers changing every day. For them, everything is in their lucky numbers. Before Matka evolved, the gamblers in the 1960s used to gamble upon the fluctuating numbers of the New York Cotton rates.

Regarding the make or break numbers, namely the ranks in education, enlightened schools like the Rishi Valley school on Kanakapura Road, have entirely done away with examinations in the lower classes upto tenth or so. Lot of schools nowadays have done away with numbers (marks) altogether, instead they allot grades.

nIlagrIva said...

This ranking stuff appears crass to me for various reasons mentioned.

Similarly, the new Taj Mahal (which apparently got on the new wonders list) voting publicity got me thinking. I had to write that to get it out of my system.

Numerology is yet another. I've seen people get ridiculous looking names (kkkusum? come on!) to be numerologically safe. Let me not go there for now.

Ranks, as I said, are unavoidable. How else can one measure aptitude in a particular field? However, if it is avoided at a young age, children will learn that ranks and marks are not everything in life. Children can breathe easy (but their parents will still find some measure to rank their wards against their neighbors') for a while.

Thanks for the comment. It heartens me to know that a post from this nAcheez is long awaited.