Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Prompt 24: Forty-seven. A Nerd's Number And A Happy Place.

24. Numbers: Write a poem or journal entry about numbers that have special meaning to you.

Written in the Wolfson Reading Room, Manchester Central Library, as light relief after writing prompt 21 and people losing their home.

Free worksheet taken from this site.

In the pilot episode for the television series Alias, created by J. J. Abrams, a quite stereotypical geek-nerd-genius character is introduced.  Later his character would be developed beyond the realms of the TV drama geek-genius but to begin with we were encouraged to laugh at his nerdy social ineptness.  Geniuses provide comic relief according to television writers.  The name of this particular genius was Marshall Flinkman.  During the course of the pilot he hands over gadgets he's created for a dangerous mission undertaken by our heroine, Sydney Bristow.  One of the gadgets is a stick of lipstick.  One end contains a tiny camera that takes perfect 3D images and Marshall talks proudly but regretfully about it.  He says it can take forty-two photos.  Then he says that he's trying to get it up to forty-seven.  Because forty-seven is a prime number.

I have never forgiven J. J. Abrams for that script.  Never.  I probably never will.

And why not?

Because of this:  Yes.  Forty-seven IS a prime number.  Yes.  I can see the attraction of trying to get something up to a prime number.  I'd be likely to do that myself.  I like prime numbers.  I used to know lists of them but have forgotten them now.  Reciting them was as relaxing as reciting the first dozen numbers in the Fibonacci sequence.  Over and over in my head, providing some central cohesion in the chaos outside.  1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and so on.  Or 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 and so on.  I found a degree of peace in those numbers.  In square numbers too.  And powers of 2.  It still feels good inside whenever I notice that the first bridge I see on the Metro after leaving central Newcastle is numbered 1089.  A square number.  And that one of the signals I pass has the number 164.  That's the sum of two squares, and if you halve it it's still the sum of two squares, and if you halve it again it's still the sum of two squares.  I thought about writing about these numbers.  Of how I manually calculated the square root of three to forty decimal places as a child, using pen and paper.  Because I liked the square root of three!  Of how I count the washing up.  Of how I love numbers.  You know where you are with numbers.  Like a woman said once on television, "Numbers are groovy."  It was love at first count!

I may be a little strange at times.  Back to topic.  I don't bear any grudge against J. J. Abrams for the fact that Marshall wanted a prime number.  Good for Marshall.  High five.  And miss and look embarrassed because we're TV geeks and that's what we do.

It's not that.  Oh no.  I bear this grudge for a great crime.  This crime:  If Marshall wanted to extend the photographic capabilities of this lipstick camera to a prime number of shots and was starting from forty-two then he would have known this.  Forty-three is a prime number.

Marshall would have said "I'm trying to get it up to forty-three, because that's a prime number."  He would not, could not, should not and there's no possibility at all that he would have mentioned forty-seven.  None.  J. J. Abrams, you're an idiot and your scripts stink!  Not really.  This mathematical faux pas didn't stop me watching the entire five seasons of Alias more than once.  It didn't stop me watching Lost and I have to say that I generally find his work satisfying.  If only Marshall hadn't said that line!

I learned later that forty-seven was important.  It wasn't a coincidence that Marshall said that number.  Abrams didn't write that number into the script on a whim or just because it was a good nerdy joke.  He had his reasons.  It was still a mistake though.  And one with an easy solution.  If the camera had taken forty-five shots instead of forty-two.  Solved.  No elementary error and there's still that occurrence of forty-seven.

Okay.  Hands up who knows that forty-seven is an important number.  Hands up who knows why.  Ooh, me, me, me, me.  I know.

Somewhere in a mathematical journal is a stunning proof.  It's (almost) flawless.  The proof was developed by people in the maths faculty of Pomona College in California and it shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that every number is equal to forty-seven.  How can a number not be important if every number is equal to it?  Forty-seven.  How old are you?  You're forty-seven.  Or at least equal to forty-seven.  And so am I.  David Bowie died at forty-seven.  The Queen still lives at forty-seven.  (Unless she dies in the few days between today and the publication of this post.  In which case I'll hastily edit that line!)

The article was, of course, a joke.  As much of a joke as the article published in a serious theological journal a while back which claimed to show that the Old Testament was written after the New Testament in order that all the prophecies would work out correctly.  In truth there's only one number equal to forty-seven.  And that's forty-seven.  That didn't stop Pomona College having a Forty-Seven Society.  It didn't stop me becoming, for a while, a member of an online forum devoted to the number.  Like I said, I may be a little strange at times.

What connects a clever joke in Pomona college to Marshall Flinkman's error?  One man.  He studied maths at Pamona.  His name is Joe Menosky.  He left college and didn't devote his life to maths.  Instead he became a writer and at some point during the making of the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation he landed a job as Executive Story Editor.  Menosky went on to work on Deep Space 9 and Voyager.  I think he's writing for the new Star Trek series too.  He wrote a lot of decent episodes but for me the most memorable thing he did was this:

Joe Menosky intentionally included the number forty-seven in every Star Trek episode he wrote.

Other writers caught on and the started including forty-seven too.

Watch the late episodes of The Next Generation.  Watch most episodes of Deep Space 9.  Watch any episode at all of Voyager.  You will spot the same thing:

The number forty-seven.

I love noticing.  I love the number.  And it's prime!  Every time I'm watching television and the number appears, spoken or on the screen, I tend to punch the air with my fish.  Like I say, I might be a little strange.  I watch out for seventy-fours too.  They aren't infrequent.

And then J. J. Abrams learned of forty-seven.  And he joined in with the joke.  Marshall had to say forty-seven because it's a writers' joke.  The number then appears in some form in every single episode of the series.  It's massively enjoyable to watch for the number.  It's enjoyable to watch at all and see the scrapes Sydney and her friends and enemies get into in true Saturday morning cliffhanger serial style.

Abrams continued to use forty-seven.  Every episode of Fringe.  All the movies he makes.  It's everywhere.  And then I start to see forty-sevens in other shows too.  Am I imagining them or are they truly there?  I don't know but I see them anyway.  And because human psychology is what it is, I notice the forty-sevens in the world too.  There seem to be an awful lot of them but in truth I know they're not more common than other numbers.  I just notice them more.

I am madly in love with forty-seven.  The endorphin rush of a forty-seven is a beautiful experience.

If only Marshall Flinkman hadn't made that unforgivable mistake!

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