In Tragedy, the Nonsense of Numbers

In times of crisis and heartbreak, many people's need for explanations of any sort seems to make them more open to the appeal of prophecies and coincidences. The Kennedy assassination, for example, led to a long list of seemingly eerie historical and numerical links between Kennedy and Lincoln.

Accepting such sham explanations can be more comforting than facing the awful acts directly, puzzling out their causes, and framing our responses. This may be part of the reason for the outpouring of superstition that sprang up on the Internet after the attack on the World Trade Center.

From 9-11 to ELSs

First there were the 11 numerologists whose e-mails began by pointing out that Sept. 11 is written 9-11, the telephone code for emergencies. Moreover, the sum of the digits in 9-11 (9 +1+1) is 11, Sept. 11 is the 254th day of the year, the sum of 2,5, and 4 is 11, and after Sept. 11, there remain 111 days in the year. Stretching things even more, the e-mails noted that the twin towers of the WTC look like the number 11, that the flight number of the first plane to hit the towers was 11, and that various significant phrases, including "New York City," "Afghanistan," and "The Pentagon" have 11 letters.

(Side note: The e-mails neglected to mention that 911 has a twinning property in the following rather strained sense: Take any three digit number, multiply it by 91 and then by 11, and, lo and behold, the digits will always repeat themselves. Thus 767 x 91 x 11 equals 767,767. Why? See below for the answer.)

There are many more of these after-the-fact manipulations, but the problem should be clear. With a little effort, we could do something similar with almost any date or any set of words and names.

The situation is analogous to the Bible codes, which I have discussed in a previous column. People search the Bible for equidistant letter sequences (ELSs) that spell out words that are relevant to an event and that can be said to have "predicted" it. (ELSs are letters in a text, each separated from the next by a fixed number of other letters.) Consider the word "generalization" for an easy example. It contains an equidistant letter sequence for "Nazi" as can be seen by capitalizing the letters in question: geNerAliZatIon.

There were e-mails and Web sites claiming the Bible contains many ELSs for "Saddam Hussein," "bin Laden," and also much longer ones describing the heinous acts at the World Trade Center. Unlike the original Bible codes, whose faults were rather subtle, these longer ELSs are purely bogus.

Nostradamus, Rorschach, and the 'Devil'

The most widely circulated of the recent e-mail hoaxes involves the alleged prophecies of the 16th century mystic and astrologer Nostradamus. Many verses were cited, most complete fabrications. Others were variations on existing verses whose flowery, vague language, like verbal Rorschach inkblots, allows for countless interpretations.

One of the most popular was "The big war will begin when the big city is burning on the 11th day of the 9th month that two metal birds would crash into two tall statues in the city and the world will end soon after." Seemingly prescient, this verse was simply made up, supermarket tabloid style.

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