Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Top Ten Favorite Numbers

What numbers are the favorites of the people who have favorite numbers? I decided to ask on a lark, expecting a few responses, and it went crazy. (For my relatively quiet corner of social media.)

The idea had been bugging me since Joseph Nebus (who has a great weekly review of #mathcomics) linked to this comic from Cavna:

NO WAY are those the greatest, nor even the most popular. I can't even remember what tweet I saw that put this mild annoyance over the edge into asking out loud, but now I have a bunch of data on math teachers' favorite numbers.

This experience has taught me that our people care about numbers. They are more than quantities, they connect to ideas and stories.

Some things I noticed:

  • 18 is the first natural number not to appear.
  • Ironically, 2 is no one's 2nd favorite number, but is some people's 3rd or 1st favorite.
  • Having a symbol or name makes you a Big Deal number.
  • For about the top 20, number of mentions correlates to the Borda count (3 points for 1st, 2 for 2nd, 1 for 3rd).
  • No one loves negative numbers. Come on people. Transfinite numbers got more love.
  • 73 was the largest prime mentioned. Nope 163. Nope, 8675309. That number!
  • 6 was the last single digit to be mentioned. 
  • 42 did not show up for the first several hours, then stormed up in popularity.

I'm going to show this list to learners and ask them to think about why some of these numbers might be on here. In particular the larger numbers...

My top three (not included in the data) would probably be 4, 0, and Φ. 4 was my first ever favorite number. I explained to several adults how it was both 2+2 and 2 x 2. As a joke I'd get people to continue the pattern 2, 4, ... and if they said 6 I'd say 8 and vice versa. Little pain in the neck I was. (Except I was never little, as the family joke went.) 0 is the competitive spot. 10 - the first number to show place value? -1 - the huge discovery or invention? Something with a slick math history, like $sqrt{2}$, e, 1729 or 163? Something exotic, like Graham's number, a googol, or τ? In the end I have to go with 0. The digit that became a number, with cool Bahmagupta connotations. Փinally, the number about which I sometimes tell students that it was invented by my great, great, great grandfather. Even if there was no name connection, even if it wasn't so marvelously algebraic, even if I hadn't seen 3rd graders discover it through the amazing Fibonacci connection, I would have to pick it for the spiral connections.

The question elicited some great stories and tweets...

I can be pretty dense.

Bob Lochel shared this perfect kickoff to the top ten, from the show that made Top Ten a thing. Also, when asked early in my career for what I wanted to be like, I often cited David Letterman. I apologize to my students then, and to their grandchildren.

So from the home office in Grand Haven, Michigan,

Math Teachers' Favorite Numbers

10.  It's the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything...

9. Not really...

8. Moving up one space,

7.  Lucky for us, lucky for you, this prime is one better than perfect. It's been up, it's been heavenly, it's been deadly, it is in 7th place with 7 points,

6. Often considered the first number, and still the...

5.  Pythagoras may have called this number the root of all evil, and it still gets a lot of hype. It is geometric and irrational, ...

4. Move on, folks.

Nothing to see here. Except the number that makes our place value system so craaazy good; Brahmagupta made it work. Often mistaken for a vowel, sometimes seen wearing a fashionable sash. Er, slash.

3. Fee or Fie? You won't fo-fum when you contemplate this 3rd place number, unless you go to the point where you're crazy and see it every where. Favorite of the Egyptians, the Greeks and God if you believe all the hype, it's....

2. Popular choice among mathematicians, who have denoted it after the greatest ever to be called one of their number. It turns up everywhere, and has all your base.
1. As surprising as Alabama football, we find here the number with not one, but two days dedicated to it. Half the number some claim it should be, but twice what it takes to be right. A great big slice oooooof - no. I hate pie jokes. And what's with everybody focusing on irrational, when it's transcendental?

If you want to dig more deeply, Carolyn Frye recommended the great RadioLab show on favorite numbers.

If you want to math more deeply, here's the data in a Google sheet. Thanks to everyone who participated, and sorry for clogging up your twitter feed.

I think sometimes I protest too deeply the stereotype that math is all about numbers. Maybe there are times to just go with it, and geek out.

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