Passion: Numbers

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Blossom Dearie sings about that great integer eight; Robert Kaplan wrote aboutThe Nothing That is: the History of Zero. We’re talking about the magic of numbers. They are transcendental and irrational, even imaginary numbers are real. We punch them and crunch them– integrate and differentiate them. Pick the lucky ones you win millions, the wrong ones and you’re the odd man out. the passion for numbers is the next installment in our Passion Thursdays series.

Douglas Hofstdater

Douglas Hofstadter will be joining us by phone from Palo Alto, CA.

He is Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He won the Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award for his work of nonfiction Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid.

Bob Dorough

You know Bob Dorough. He’s a lgendary hipster jazz pianist, known to an entire generation as the brains behind the Multiplication Rock hits: My Hero Zero, Naughty Number Nine, and Three is a Magic Number. He’ll be joining us from Albuquerque, NM.

Jay Keyser

In our studios in Allston , MA we are thrilled to be joined by Jay Keyser. He’s Professor of Linguistics; Special Assistant to the Provost; Peter de Florez Chair; Phonology, Lexical Theory, Poetics at MIT.

Fantastic Fran

Last but not least, joining us from Detroit, MI is numerologist Fantastic Fran. She’s been using numbers for over a decade to help people sort out their past, present and future.

Suggested Reading

Writer Aimee Bender is a favorite among numberphiles. In her Novel An Invisible Sign of My Own,protagonist Mona Gray is a math teacher who almost exclusively defines her world through numbers. Bender is the author of the forthcoming book Willful Creatures: Stories.

We look forward to hearing from you. Please call in to tell us what numbers mean to you.

Related Content

  • bft

    Who was it that sold t-shirts on a web page with a cartoon caption “I’m not a real number, but I play 1 on Sesame Street”? Can’t find it now.

  • bft

    Found it, by googling one of the other captions I remembered from the site.

    It’s Craig Swanson, ,

    accompanied by a little essay about different kinds of numbers,

    not including transcendental ones (I guess they didn’t cover those on Sesame St).

  • rpinnel

    You need to speak with John Derbyshire, author of PRIME OBSESSION about the Riemann Hypothesis. He does this great song about the Riemann Hypothesis and Prime Numbers. You can hear some of it at:

    I can tell you how to reach him if you’re interested.

  • Don’t forget pi. Richard Preston, several years ago for The New Yorker, wrote a great profile of the Chudnovsky brothers, emigre Russian mathematicians who built their own supercomputer in a New York apartment, out of off-the-shelf parts. They built the computer so they could run pi out to hundreds of millions of digits. Perhaps the Chudnovskys could be part of your program.

  • mhs

    John Conway’s Game of Life might fit well into this discussion. The simple rules of this mathematical “game” generate complicated patterns. I’m sure many find this property of the game to be thought-provoking.

  • I remember a raccous debate breaking out in one of my college classes surrounding the recurrance of “special numbers” (like ‘e’) throughout different types of science.

    I am of the mind that this recurrence expresses our relationship to science rather than expressing something fundamental about the universe. Just a there are multiple geometries that are able to describe the universe, there must be alternative forms of the science that we know that would have other values recur or that would not have recurring values at all. It’s a hard idea to wrap one’s head around, but I’m sure there’s someone out there who studies alternate sciences (chemistry without atoms, physics without gravity, etc)

  • dkeiger – are the Chudnovsky brothers the inspiration for the movie “Pi”. I loved that film.

    Also, “Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid” was book that my father leant to me when I was in my early 20s. We both loved it and it gave me an appreciation for how numbers represented a particular kind of brain functioning that could be seen across disciplines. Not every artist is mathematical, but many are in varying degrees.

    Now I want to read the book again. Maybe we should have a radio open source book club and dedicate one show a month to an intellectually stimulating book….

  • bart

    Don’t forget – there are 10 kinds of people in this world, those who understand binary and those who don’t.

  • ptrig

    Elizabeth Sharp who goes by the monicker Ill Ease did a photobook inspired by the O.J. Simpson case entitled Tragic Rise and Fall of the Number 32. You can see some of it here:

  • Vanessa

    Birds [from our flickr group sent me this message:

    Hi Vanessa,

    Have just stumbled upon your Radioopensource group on Flickr. Nice

    idea & like the concept of mixing media like a bucket of paint.

    Just a couple of comments re. numbers, your current topic: firstly,

    there’s a really good read “Nature’s Numbers” by Ian Stewart that

    talks about the numerical nature of well, nature. It’s a very

    accessible door into the world of mathematics, why mathematicians get

    turned on by numbers, arithmetic, etc., and how the universe, planet,

    and life on earth are all governed by certain mathematical rules, in

    the same way that physical laws govern the Nature of Things.

    Secondly, I think that the way different cultures treat specific

    numbers or strings of numbers, particularly in terms of symbolism,

    good luck/bad luck, and so forth, is pretty interesting. A recent

    example: we were in a Burmese restaurant last night and ordered

    several things from the menu (by name). The waiter had written them

    down by menu code: A6, C6 and D6. His reaction was that this was very

    lucky, whereas as westerners (conditioned by Christianity?), we

    immediately thought of the number of the beast. Lastly, as an amateur

    photographer, I think the variation in how numbers are displayed, the

    way that we normally don’t even register displayed digits in our

    environment, and the range of uses, makes numbers interesting

    subjects. Living in New York naturally makes that even more

    interesting giving the numerical bombardment.

    I’ve tagged a couple of numerical photos (“radioopensource”).



  • GregHuber

    There are a lot of things to be passionate about when it comes to numbers, but numerology and other pseudoscience notions don’t number among them. A numerologist might be appropriate for a show on crackpots, crazy beliefs, self-deception, etc, but not in a serious discussion on numbers and humanity’s fascination with them. Fight the spread of dis- and mis-information!

  • Vanessa

    chimpanzees can remember the sequence of at least 5 numbers, the same as (or even more than) preschool children. Our study and others demonstrate the rudimentary form of numerical competence in non-human primates.


  • Abby

    I don’t object to your having a numerologist on the air–I think it might be a fun lark, but I’m embarassed that you had one on with real mathematicians like Doug Hofstadter.

  • AOG

    Would it be possible to have a transcript of the Monkey’s Age Story Problem posted. I was laughing so hard I missed 1/2 of it.

  • evan

    I second AOG’s request. That was great.

  • mhs

    The monkey problem seems to be all over the place. Here’s one location:

  • mhs

    I realize the source I gave above leaves out a few key words. Here is a more complete statement of the problem:

  • Allison, I too loved the movie “Pi,” but it has nothing to do with the Chudnovsky brothers. If you’re not familiar with Richard Preston’s story in The New Yorker, send me your e-mail address and I’ll send a PDF of the piece.


  • Ken_L

    I finally got around to listening to the show. Good show!

    I’ve got a WebMathematica page that illustrates how the golden mean is related to the distribution of seeds on a flower:

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