Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Slave to the Numbers

Let's start out with some numbers:

Big numba' 5!
5 - the number of miles I ran yesterday pain free

2 - the number of calves I have to listen to carefully over the coming weeks

1,200 - the number of meters I swam this morning

16 - the number of times I swallowed water during my swim (compared to 57 on Sunday's swim)

0 - the number of miles I'm going to run today to make sure my legs recover

As a runner, life is dominated by numbers:
  • What's my pace?
  • What's my finish time?
  • How many miles per week?
  • How many miles/km is the race?
  • What place did I finish in my age group?
  • How many miles have I put on my shoes?
  • How expensive is that race?
  • What time do I have to get up to get my run in before work?
  • How many calories should I consume during marathon training?

I could go on and on. In the wake of my injury I've been thinking about what exactly kept me running while I was in so much pain. Answer: the numbers! I was obsessed with meeting the number of miles outlined on my training plan every week, no exceptions. I'd like to say I'm more OCD than some people when it comes to this, but I'm sure there are many out there like me. If my total weekly miles says 45, then I'm going to hit 45. Not 44.67. 45. End of story. It's insane. It makes no sense. And there's no reason that it should bother me as much as it does when something like that happens. 

The truth is that numbers don't just rule the running world, but everything actually.
  • How much money do I have?
  • What score did I get on that test?
  • Where do I rank among other students/workers?
  • How many hours do I have to work today?
  • How many votes does the House need to get that bill passed?
  • How many cups of flour do I add to this cake mix?
  • How many hours of sleep can I get tonight?
  • How much gas do I have in the car?
  • How many servings are in this?
  • Etc., etc.

As long as human civilization has been around, numbers have hung over us. Think about it - every ancient civilization had a numeral system. It's just something you couldn't live without. How many horses do I have? How much grain do I need to grow to survive the season? How many days journey is it to the capital?

This past week my colleague has been researching the ancient history of numeral systems, which has led to some interesting discussions. Just looking at the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Maya we've learned that they all came up with their own, unique numeral systems, completely independent of each other. Just as they all figured out how to develop written language and build temples and shrines, they also figured out that they needed a way to count.
Egyptian - 4,622

Babylonian - 23

Maya - 13
When you think about all of the different numeral systems that have existed in the past, it suddenly becomes strange to think that now almost the entire world uses only one: Arabic numerals. Invented in India around 500 CE (with origins gonig back as far as 300 BCE), this system of counting with a zero (only used before by the Maya) and a place-value notation, was revolutionary. It quickly spread into Africa and Europe by the Arabs in the Middle Ages, and eventually to America along with the Europeans.

We can't seem to agree on most things: gay marriage, a new president, health insurance, religion, women's running records, etc, but when it comes to numbers we all see it the same. It's amazing to think that out of the few things in this world that we can agree on, a common numeral system is one of them. How does something so abstract have so much power over us?

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant post! (My day job is as a demographer/statistician... so I *heart* numbers.)


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