In Tragedy, the Nonsense of Numbers

The truly ominous aspect of Nostradamus' Prophecies was that it reached the No. 1 spot on the Amazon bestseller list in the week after the attacks and that five other books about Nostradamus were in the top 25. Search engines were also taxed by surfers seeking out "Nostradamus," which temporarily even beat out "adult" and "sex" in popularity.

All of these hoaxes and coincidences involve seeing or projecting patterns onto numbers and words. Photographs brought out the same tendency in some who thought they saw the "devil" in the clouds above the WTC or in the smoke coming out of it. These photos also appeared on many sites.

History and Psychology

The reading of significance into pictures and numerical and literal symbols has a long history. Consider I Ching hexagrams, geometric symbols that permit an indefinitely large number of interpretations, none of which is ever shown to be correct or incorrect, accurate or inaccurate, predictive or not predictive. Numerology, too, is a very old practice common to many ancient and medieval societies. It often involved the assignment of numerical values to letters and the tortured reading of significance into the numerical equality between various words and phrases. These numerical readings have been used by Greeks, Jews, Christians, and Muslims not only to provide confirmation of religious doctrine (666, for example), but also for prediction, dream interpretation, amusement, and as aids to memory and positive associations.

All people search for patterns and order, but some are determined to find them whether they're there or not. Sometimes it's hard to tell. If one flips a coin many times in succession, for example, and colors the successive squares of a large checkerboard black or white depending on whether the coin lands heads or tails, the resulting randomly colored checkerboard will frequently appear to contain a representation of some sort.

But human affairs are much more multi-faceted than checkerboards. There are so many ways in which numbers, names, events, organizations, and we ourselves may be linked together that it's almost impossible that there not be all sorts of meaningless coincidences and nebulous predictions. This is especially so when one is inundated with so much decontextualized information (as on the Internet) and overwhelmed by so much grief, fear, and anger.

The more difficult question is not why so many counterfeit connections were discovered, but rather why some ominously real ones were not.

Answer to sidebar question: 91 x 11 = 1,001, which when multiplied by any three digit number has the stated effect.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University and adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. His Who’s Counting? column on appears every month.

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