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One of the several reasons you could read ‘One of the several reasons you could read’ just now is because the Brodmann 17 area in the pinkish-beige tofu-textured mass you lug around inside your head is working. Brodmann 17 is the primary visual cortex1, key to your pattern recognition ability2.

Of course, in the absence of patterns, one has randomness3. For instance, if you didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘randomness’, it would appear to you as nine letters strung together arbitrarily, conveying no sense deeper than the stringing together itself. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t also know how to count. It’s 10 letters, not nine4. Now randomness is the big spanner in the works for people looking for the Big Answers5, like ‘Why me’6? Or ‘Why did the chicken cross the road again’7? Randomness answers every such query with a ‘That’s the way it is’.

So, is it just a random occurrence that 17 is ‘the least random number’? Repeated tests have shown that when human beings are asked to unthinkingly choose a number between 1 and 20, 17 is the most popular. This gets the ‘23’ people all in a tizzy, because it is the number most sacred for the Discordians who worship the five golden apples of Eris, and who noticed, among many other things, that most hotel rooms in Hollywood films are numbered 238. This obviously points towards some really clandestine rules of the universe that you can’t crack unless you take extreme measures like listening 24/7 at top volume to John Cage’s three-movement composition 4 Minutes 33 Seconds, which consists of three musicians not playing their instruments for four minutes and 33 seconds (the first movement lasts 30 seconds, the second two minutes and 23, and the third one minute and 40 seconds)9.

Yet, 17 holds an unassailable position: it has pride of place in the oldest example of human beings screwing up on a math question. The Egyptian Rhind papyrus, dating back to about 1700 BC, carries the following equation: 1/2 + 1/51 + 1/68 = 1/17. This is not only wrong, it’s way way off10! This has led to much conjecture in some circles about whether the Pharaohs’ architects got their theorems all mixed up and the great pyramids were actually supposed to be cylinders11. If this is true, the contribution of 17 to human civilisation cannot be overestimated.

Illustration by Sorit
Even the Douglas Adams-proposed 42 (see footnote 5) as the answer to the Ultimate Question About Life, the Universe and Everything—What is 9 into 6?—works when we use a number system based on the exciting 1312 rather than the unimaginative 10. But those Egyptians—boy, they were in a league by themselves! And it was this mistake that made 17 the sacred sigil of the Brethren of Massive Error, the powerful secret society behind all major disasters of the last 100 years, from the sinking of the Titanic to that Leo-and-Kate film13.

So, 17 is perhaps the most important number shaping our lives and histories. Because it’s a trickster, that one. When you consider the two digits separately, 1 represents unity, a bulwark of certainty against the vagaries of chance, but the second digit, 7, is again the most common random number cited by people when asked to pick one between 5 and 10. When you join the two digits physically, the shape you get is a nice right angle triangle, and then it sneers at Pythagoras, because though the descender of 7 forms the hypotenuse, no way will 17 as the sum of the squares of the other two sides (of lengths 1 and 4) give you a nice square root and a good-citizen equivalent of a hypotenuse. This dodgy number represents the twisted fundamentals of existence, the Big Joke, the quest for whose punchline is the real aim of all human striving.

No wonder, then, that the Japanese, whose favourite extreme sport happens to be suicide, write haikus—poems that must have exactly 17 syllables.

And 17 sort of sneaks up on you, between 16 and 18. Mathematically, 16 is a square, it’s supposed to be sweet, it’s the sort of number that fits in effortlessly into titles of valuable self-improvement books like 16 Easy Steps to (What’s that thing? Oh yes) Alzheimer’s, or 16 Exciting Ways To Be An Utter Bore And Get Kicked Upstairs. Eighteen too is socially acceptable: you can get a voter’s card, do highway hit-and-runs legally and, of course, that classic fishing manual Catch 22 was originally titled Catch 18. Seventeen, on the other hand, is a renegade. Being a prime number, it is egotistic and solitary, you can picture it as a man in a raincoat waiting at a dark street corner smoking an unfiltered cigarette and waiting14.

Now tick the alternative that seems most correct to you:

a. He’s waiting for you

b. He’s waiting to be 18

c. Autumn rain—/I send an unwilling flea/Flying

And with that, we come to the end of the world news for today. Good night, and good luck.


Footnotes

1. Brodmann K., Vergleichende Lokalisationslehre der Grosshirnrinde. Leipzig: Johann Ambrosius Bart, 1909

2. Wells H.G., The Invisible Man. London: C. Arthur Pearson, 1897

3. Munera H.A., A deterministic event tree approach to uncertainty, randomness and probability in individual chance processes, Theory and Decision. Springer, 1992. See also randomhouse.com

4. Anonymous, My First Counting Book. Chennai: Murugan Publishing. 2012

5. 42

6. Calvin .J. Hobbes, T, Charlie Brown, Manifest Anxiety and Structuring Identities in Interstitial Continuums, Archives of General Psychiatry, 1987

7. Vallortigara G., The Cognitive Chicken: Visual and Spatial Cognition in a Non-mammalian Brain, Comparative Cognition: Experimental Explorations of Animal Intelligence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009

8. Principia Discordia or How I Found Goddess And What I Did To Her When I Found Her: The Magnum Opiate Of Malaclypse The Younger, Wherein is Explained Absolutely Everything Worth Knowing About Absolutely Anything, 4th Ed. San Francisco: Rip Off Press, 1970

9. Lebrecht Norman, “We’re pitching the silence of John Cage against the noise of Simon Cowell”, The Daily Telegraph (London). January 21, 2011. See also Electrically heated surgical cutting, Cage J.M. US patent 3,826,263, 1974

10. Spalinger, Anthony, The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus as a Historical Document, Studien zur Altagyptischen Kultur, Bd. 17 (1990), pp. 295-, Helmut Buske Verlag GmbH

11. Pagoliev T. Wackoski, B. How Archimedes Sabotaged Tutankhamen and š-ramids Became Pyramids, The Journal of Drooling Trigonometricians, Bedlamov Press, 2002 

12. Ocean’s 13: Director’s Cut. Dir: Steven Soderbergh. Special 87% Discount on DVD on scavengedstuff.com. Extra: Interview with George Clooney on the connection between Dr Seuss books and the Iraq invasion

13. Sandipan Deb vs Dan Brown, S1 10 Cr. 56 (US 8th Circuit Court, 2013), Plagiarism in Angels and Massive Errors by Dan Brown

14. Waiting, Episode 83b, SpongeBob SquarePants, 5th Season, Nickelodeon. See also Waiting, song by Madonna, Erotica, Maverick Records, 1992; Waiting: True Confessions of a Waitress, Debra Ginsberg, New York: Harper Collins, 2001; and Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett, Paris: Minuit, 1952.


(Sandipan Deb’s book Fallen Angel: The Mystery of Rajat Gupta will be published in November.)

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