The Odd Accounts of Forbidden Numbers

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In the same way that words can be used as powerful tools among the literate, so too can numbers have tremendous significance for the numerate. Although a numeral is nothing more than a symbol used in counting, numbers can actually convey a great deal of information. This makes them very powerful, and potentially even dangerous. In fact, this is such a big deal that certain numbers have actually been banned in various different places, at specific times throughout history, for numerous reasons.

As an example, more than two and a half millennia ago, the renowned Greek philosopher Pythagoras thought that mathematics was the foundation of everything. As part of this, he and his devout followers believed that the world was completely rational, being perfectly ordered. Then, one day a man named Hippasus realized that there are certain quantities that can’t be expressed by any combination of whole numbers or fractions. Unfortunately for him, the resulting irrational numbers were perceived of as being a threat to the cult of numerologists, so they exiled him.

Much later, all the way up into the Middle Ages, people in Europe continued to use Roman numerals because Arabic numerals were very easy to alter since everything was handwritten. Basically, they were upset by the curly nature of the numbers six (6), nine (9), and zero (0), which could be misleading in the marketplace. In addition to that, the concept of zero in the Arabian system also opened the door to negative numbers, which the Europeans didn’t like either. So, they rejected progress for a while. Then, Fibonacci finally came along and universalized numbers in the 13th century. Up to that point, Arabic numerals had been outlawed in that part of the world. In addition to that, negative numbers were rejected by the West all the way up into the 19th century.

Then in the East, late in the 20th century, there were student-led demonstrations in Beijing. For one month, two weeks and six days, they protested until being forcibly suppressed and then massacred by the Chinese military. In an effort to cover this up, the government currently prohibits mentioning the date of that event, which can be expressed with numbers. In other words, China is trying to entirely discourage the use of digits like 06-04-1989, because of the significance they hold to the infamous “June Fourth Incident”. This has gotten so bad that the numbers 4, 6, and 89 are now banned search terms on the search engines in China.

Even more recently than that, the Belgian Minister of the Interior wrote a letter to the Football Association asking them to forbid fans in the stadiums from wearing shirts displaying the numbers 18 and 88 without an accompanying name, due to the connotation those numbers have in white-nationalist circles. A similar kind of thing happened in the United States five years later when a school district in Colorado banned the wearing of jerseys that bore the numbers 18, 14, or 13, as well as the reverse of 81, 41, or 31, due to an association with gangs. Then, just this year, a Slovakian politician on the far-right was criminally charged for making a charitable donation of 1,488 euros.

In addition to these sorts of things, nowadays every document, photo, and video can be digitized. Plus, programs are all written in code. Along these same lines, the encryption key for a movie is private property that should not be distributed without the consent of the studio that produced it. The thing is that it’s just a sequence of non-random numbers, but it can still be used in an illicit manner. There is even decryption software for this kind of thing that has been banned in America and other countries. More to the point, there is a very long prime number binary representation of the compressed version of the source code of the DVD decryption algorithm. As a result, possessing that number is just as illegal as owning the copying software itself.

This is all becoming increasingly more important because, as time goes on, more and more things will be able to be expressed as code, being reducible to a string of numbers. Who knows, someday people might even upload their minds to the web to become virtually immortal, or do something even more outlandish than that with math. You just never know. Numbers have a very unusual kind of ontological status as substantives. They exist as something which has no real material basis of which to speak, but which can still be regulated. Like words, numbers have the power to do amazing things. That’s why, in many ways, the fate of the world actually depends on mankind’s acceptance and appreciation of the power of symbols, particularly the quantitative kind. Simply put, we have to fall in love with numbers. More importantly, it needs to be with all of them.

An Autodidact Polymath

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