In Tragedy, the Nonsense of Numbers

ByCommentary by John Allen Paulos

Sept. 27, 2001 -- 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.

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.