…ψάμμος ἀριθμὸν περιπέφευγεν… — Πίνδαρου *Ολυμπιόνικος ΙΙ*, 98

“…the sand escapes all numbering…” — Pindar, *Second Olympian Ode*, line 98

…ψάμμος ἀριθμὸν περιπέφευγεν… — Πίνδαρου *Ολυμπιόνικος ΙΙ*, 98

“…the sand escapes all numbering…” — Pindar, *Second Olympian Ode*, line 98

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What’s special about the binary number 10011 and the ternary number 1001120221? To answer the question, you have to see double. 10011 contains all possible pairs of numbers created from 0 and 1, just as 1001120221 contains all possible pairs created from 0, 1 and 2. And each pair appears exactly once. Now try the quaternary number 10011202130322331. That contains exactly one example of all possible pairs created from 0, 1, 2 and 3.

But there’s something more: in each case, the number is the smallest possible number with that property. As the bases get higher, that gets less obvious. In quinary, or base 5, the smallest number containing all possible pairs is 10011202130314042232433441. The digits look increasingly random. And what about base 10? There are 100 possible pairs of numbers created from the digits 0 to 9, starting with 00, 01, 02… and ending with …97, 98, 99. To accommodate 100 pairs, the all-pair number in base 10 has to be 101 digits long. It’s a string of digits, so let’s call it a d-string:

1, 0, 0, 1, 1, 2, 0, 2, 1, 3, 0, 3, 1, 4, 0, 4, 1, 5, 0, 5, 1, 6, 0, 6, 1, 7, 0, 7, 1, 8, 0, 8, 1, 9, 0, 9, 2, 2, 3, 2, 4, 2, 5, 2, 6, 2, 7, 2, 8, 2, 9, 3, 3, 4, 3, 5, 3, 6, 3, 7, 3, 8, 3, 9, 4, 4, 5, 4, 6, 4, 7, 4, 8, 4, 9, 5, 5, 6, 5, 7, 5, 8, 5, 9, 6, 6, 7, 6, 8, 6, 9, 7, 7, 8, 7, 9, 8, 8, 9, 9, 1

Again, the digits look increasingly random. They aren’t: they’re strictly determined. The d-string is in harmony. As the digits are generated from the left, they impose restrictions on the digits that appear later. It might appear that you could shift larger digits to the right and make the number smaller, but if you do that you no longer meet the conditions and the d-string collapses into dischord.

Now examine d-strings containing all possible triplets created from the digits of bases 2, 3 and 4:

1, 0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 1, 1, 1, 0 in base 2 = 558 in base 10

1, 0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 1, 1, 0, 2, 0, 0, 2, 1, 1, 1, 2, 0, 1, 2, 1, 2, 2, 0, 2, 2, 2, 1, 0 in base 3 = 23203495920756 in base 10

1, 0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 1, 1, 0, 2, 0, 0, 2, 1, 0, 3, 0, 0, 3, 1, 1, 1, 2, 0, 1, 2, 1, 1, 3, 0, 1, 3, 1, 2, 2, 0, 2, 2, 1, 2, 3, 0, 2, 3, 1, 3, 2, 0, 3, 2, 1, 3, 3, 0, 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, 3, 2, 3, 3, 3, 1, 0 in base 4 = 1366872334420014346556556812432766057460 in base 10

Note that there are 8 possible triplets in base 2, so the all-triplet number has to be 10 digits long. In base 10, there are 1000 possible triplets, so the all-triplet number has to be 1002 digits long. Here it is:

1, 0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 1, 1, 0, 2, 0, 0, 2, 1, 0, 3, 0, 0, 3, 1, 0, 4, 0, 0, 4, 1, 0, 5, 0, 0, 5, 1, 0, 6, 0, 0, 6, 1, 0, 7, 0, 0, 7, 1, 0, 8, 0, 0, 8, 1, 0, 9, 0, 0, 9, 1, 1, 1, 2, 0, 1, 2, 1, 1, 3, 0, 1, 3, 1, 1, 4, 0, 1, 4, 1, 1, 5, 0, 1, 5, 1, 1, 6, 0, 1, 6, 1, 1, 7, 0, 1, 7, 1, 1, 8, 0, 1, 8, 1, 1, 9, 0, 1, 9, 1, 2, 2, 0, 2, 2, 1, 2, 3, 0, 2, 3, 1, 2, 4, 0, 2, 4, 1, 2, 5, 0, 2, 5, 1, 2, 6, 0, 2, 6, 1, 2, 7, 0, 2, 7, 1, 2, 8, 0, 2, 8, 1, 2, 9, 0, 2, 9, 1, 3, 2, 0, 3, 2, 1, 3, 3, 0, 3, 3, 1, 3, 4, 0, 3, 4, 1, 3, 5, 0, 3, 5, 1, 3, 6, 0, 3, 6, 1, 3, 7, 0, 3, 7, 1, 3, 8, 0, 3, 8, 1, 3, 9, 0, 3, 9, 1, 4, 2, 0, 4, 2, 1, 4, 3, 0, 4, 3, 1, 4, 4, 0, 4, 4, 1, 4, 5, 0, 4, 5, 1, 4, 6, 0, 4, 6, 1, 4, 7, 0, 4, 7, 1, 4, 8, 0, 4, 8, 1, 4, 9, 0, 4, 9, 1, 5, 2, 0, 5, 2, 1, 5, 3, 0, 5, 3, 1, 5, 4, 0, 5, 4, 1, 5, 5, 0, 5, 5, 1, 5, 6, 0, 5, 6, 1, 5, 7, 0, 5, 7, 1, 5, 8, 0, 5, 8, 1, 5, 9, 0, 5, 9, 1, 6, 2, 0, 6, 2, 1, 6, 3, 0, 6, 3, 1, 6, 4, 0, 6, 4, 1, 6, 5, 0, 6, 5, 1, 6, 6, 0, 6, 6, 1, 6, 7, 0, 6, 7, 1, 6, 8, 0, 6, 8, 1, 6, 9, 0, 6, 9, 1, 7, 2, 0, 7, 2, 1, 7, 3, 0, 7, 3, 1, 7, 4, 0, 7, 4, 1, 7, 5, 0, 7, 5, 1, 7, 6, 0, 7, 6, 1, 7, 7, 0, 7, 7, 1, 7, 8, 0, 7, 8, 1, 7, 9, 0, 7, 9, 1, 8, 2, 0, 8, 2, 1, 8, 3, 0, 8, 3, 1, 8, 4, 0, 8, 4, 1, 8, 5, 0, 8, 5, 1, 8, 6, 0, 8, 6, 1, 8, 7, 0, 8, 7, 1, 8, 8, 0, 8, 8, 1, 8, 9, 0, 8, 9, 1, 9, 2, 0, 9, 2, 1, 9, 3, 0, 9, 3, 1, 9, 4, 0, 9, 4, 1, 9, 5, 0, 9, 5, 1, 9, 6, 0, 9, 6, 1, 9, 7, 0, 9, 7, 1, 9, 8, 0, 9, 8, 1, 9, 9, 0, 9, 9, 2, 2, 2, 3, 2, 2, 4, 2, 2, 5, 2, 2, 6, 2, 2, 7, 2, 2, 8, 2, 2, 9, 2, 3, 3, 2, 3, 4, 2, 3, 5, 2, 3, 6, 2, 3, 7, 2, 3, 8, 2, 3, 9, 2, 4, 3, 2, 4, 4, 2, 4, 5, 2, 4, 6, 2, 4, 7, 2, 4, 8, 2, 4, 9, 2, 5, 3, 2, 5, 4, 2, 5, 5, 2, 5, 6, 2, 5, 7, 2, 5, 8, 2, 5, 9, 2, 6, 3, 2, 6, 4, 2, 6, 5, 2, 6, 6, 2, 6, 7, 2, 6, 8, 2, 6, 9, 2, 7, 3, 2, 7, 4, 2, 7, 5, 2, 7, 6, 2, 7, 7, 2, 7, 8, 2, 7, 9, 2, 8, 3, 2, 8, 4, 2, 8, 5, 2, 8, 6, 2, 8, 7, 2, 8, 8, 2, 8, 9, 2, 9, 3, 2, 9, 4, 2, 9, 5, 2, 9, 6, 2, 9, 7, 2, 9, 8, 2, 9, 9, 3, 3, 3, 4, 3, 3, 5, 3, 3, 6, 3, 3, 7, 3, 3, 8, 3, 3, 9, 3, 4, 4, 3, 4, 5, 3, 4, 6, 3, 4, 7, 3, 4, 8, 3, 4, 9, 3, 5, 4, 3, 5, 5, 3, 5, 6, 3, 5, 7, 3, 5, 8, 3, 5, 9, 3, 6, 4, 3, 6, 5, 3, 6, 6, 3, 6, 7, 3, 6, 8, 3, 6, 9, 3, 7, 4, 3, 7, 5, 3, 7, 6, 3, 7, 7, 3, 7, 8, 3, 7, 9, 3, 8, 4, 3, 8, 5, 3, 8, 6, 3, 8, 7, 3, 8, 8, 3, 8, 9, 3, 9, 4, 3, 9, 5, 3, 9, 6, 3, 9, 7, 3, 9, 8, 3, 9, 9, 4, 4, 4, 5, 4, 4, 6, 4, 4, 7, 4, 4, 8, 4, 4, 9, 4, 5, 5, 4, 5, 6, 4, 5, 7, 4, 5, 8, 4, 5, 9, 4, 6, 5, 4, 6, 6, 4, 6, 7, 4, 6, 8, 4, 6, 9, 4, 7, 5, 4, 7, 6, 4, 7, 7, 4, 7, 8, 4, 7, 9, 4, 8, 5, 4, 8, 6, 4, 8, 7, 4, 8, 8, 4, 8, 9, 4, 9, 5, 4, 9, 6, 4, 9, 7, 4, 9, 8, 4, 9, 9, 5, 5, 5, 6, 5, 5, 7, 5, 5, 8, 5, 5, 9, 5, 6, 6, 5, 6, 7, 5, 6, 8, 5, 6, 9, 5, 7, 6, 5, 7, 7, 5, 7, 8, 5, 7, 9, 5, 8, 6, 5, 8, 7, 5, 8, 8, 5, 8, 9, 5, 9, 6, 5, 9, 7, 5, 9, 8, 5, 9, 9, 6, 6, 6, 7, 6, 6, 8, 6, 6, 9, 6, 7, 7, 6, 7, 8, 6, 7, 9, 6, 8, 7, 6, 8, 8, 6, 8, 9, 6, 9, 7, 6, 9, 8, 6, 9, 9, 7, 7, 7, 8, 7, 7, 9, 7, 8, 8, 7, 8, 9, 7, 9, 8, 7, 9, 9, 8, 8, 8, 9, 8, 9, 9, 9, 1, 0

Consider the quadruplet number in base 10. There are 10000 possible quadruplets, so the all-quadruplet number is 10003 digits long. And so on. In general, the “all *n*-tuplet” number in base *b* contains *b*^*n* *n*-tuplets and is (*b*^*n* + *n*-1) digits long. If *b* = 10 and *n* = 4, the d-string starts like this:

1, 0, 0, 0, 0, 1, 0, 0, 1, 1, 0, 0, 2, 0, 0, 0, 2, 1, 0, 0, 3, 0, 0, 0, 3, 1, 0, 0, 4, 0, 0, 0, 4, 1, 0, 0, 5, 0, 0, 0, 5, 1, 0, 0, 6, 0, 0, 0, 6, 1, 0, 0, 7, 0, 0, 0, 7, 1, 0, 0, 8, 0, 0, 0, 8, 1, 0, 0, 9, 0, 0, 0, 9, 1, 0, 1, 0, 1, 1, 1, 0, 1, 2, 0, 0, 1, 2, 1, 0, 1, 3, 0, 0, 1, 3, 1, 0, 1, 4, 0, 0, 1, 4, 1, 0, 1, 5, 0, 0, 1, 5, 1, 0, 1, 6, 0, 0, 1, 6, 1, 0, 1, 7, 0, 0, 1, 7, 1, 0, 1, 8, 0, 0, 1, 8, 1, 0, 1, 9, 0, 0, 1, 9, 1, 0, 2, 0, 1, 0, 2, 1, 1, 0, 2, 2, 0, 0, 2, 2, 1, 0, 2, 3, 0, 0, 2, 3, 1, 0, 2, 4, 0, 0, 2, 4, 1, 0, 2, 5, 0, 0, 2, 5, 1, 0, 2, 6…

What about when *n* = 100? Now the d-string is ungraspably huge – too big to fit in the known universe. But it starts with 1 followed by a hundred 0s and every digit after that is entirely determined. Perhaps there’s a simple way to calculate any given digit, given its position in the d-string. Either way, what is the ontological status of the d-string for *n*=100? Does it exist in some Platonic realm of number, independent of physical reality?

Some would say that it does, just like √2 or π or *e*. I disagree. I don’t believe in a Platonic realm. If the universe or multiverse ceased to exist, numbers and mathematics in general would also cease to exist. But this isn’t to say that mathematics depends on physical reality. It doesn’t. Nor does physical reality depend on mathematics. Rather, physical reality necessarily embodies mathematics, which might be defined as “entity in interrelation”. Humans have invented small-m mathematics, a symbolic way of expressing the physical embodiment of big-m mathematics.

But small-m mathematics is actually more powerful and far-ranging, because it increases the number, range and power of entities and their interaction. Where are √2 and π in physical reality? Nowhere. You could say that early mathematicians saw their shadows, cast from a Platonic realm, and deduced their existence in that realm, but that’s a metaphor. Do all events, like avalanches or thunderstorms, exist in some Platonic realm before they are realized? No, they arise as physical entities interact according to laws of physics. In a more abstract way, √2 and π arise as entities of another kind interact according to laws of logic: the concepts of a square and its diagonal, of a circle and its diameter.

The d-strings discussed above arise from the interaction of simpler concepts: the finite set of digits in a base and the ways in which they can be combined. Platonism is unnecessary: the arc and spray of a fountain are explained by the pressure of the water, the design of the pipes, the arrangement of the nozzles, not by reference to an eternal archetype of water and spray. In small-m mathematics, there are an infinite number of fountains, because small-m mathematics opens a door to a big-U universe, infinitely larger and richer than the small-u universe of physical reality.

*The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers* (1986) is one of my favourite books. It’s a fascinating mixture of math, mathecdote and math-joke:

2·618 0333…The square of φ, the golden ratio, and the only positive number such that √n = n-1. (pg. 45)

6Kepler discussed the 6-fold symmetry of snowflakes, and attempted to explain it by considering the close packing of spheres in a hexagonal array. (pg. 69)

39This appears to be the first uninteresting number, which of course makes it an especially interesting number, because it is the smallest number to have the property of being uninteresting.

It is therefore also the first number to be simultaneously interesting and uninteresting. (pg. 120)

David Wells, who wrote the *Dictionary*, “had the rare distinction of being a Cambridge scholar in mathematics and failing his degree”. He must be the mathematical equivalent of the astronomer Patrick Moore: a popularizer responsible for opening many minds and inspiring many careers. He’s also written books on geometry and mathematical puzzles. But not everyone appreciates his efforts. This is a sideswipe in a review of William Hartston’s *The Book of Numbers:*

Thankfully, this book is more concerned with facts than mathematics. Anyone wanting to learn more about [π] or the Fibonacci sequence should turn to the

Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers, a volume which none but propeller-heads will find either curious or interesting. (Review inThe Independent, 18th December 1997)

Continue reading: Poulet’s Propeller…

“**39**: This appears to be the first uninteresting number, which of course makes it an especially interesting number, because it is the smallest number to have the property of being uninteresting. It is therefore also the first number to be simultaneously interesting and uninteresting.” — David Wells, *The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers* (1986), entry for “39”, pg. 120

How many blows does it take to demolish a wall with a hammer? It depends on the wall and the hammer, of course. If the wall is reality and the hammer is mathematics, you can do it in three blows, like this:

α’. Σημεῖόν ἐστιν, οὗ μέρος οὐθέν.

β’. Γραμμὴ δὲ μῆκος ἀπλατές.

γ’. Γραμμῆς δὲ πέρατα σημεῖα.1. A point is that of which there is no part.

2. A line is a length without breadth.

3. The extremities of a line are points.

That is the astonishing, world-shattering opening in one of the strangest – and sanest – books ever written. It’s twenty-three centuries old, was written by an Alexandrian mathematician called Euclid (fl. 300 B.C.), and has been pored over by everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Bertrand Russell by way of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Its title is highly appropriate: *Στοιχεῖα*, or *Elements*. Physical reality is composed of chemical elements; mathematical reality is composed of logical elements. The second reality is much bigger – infinitely bigger, in fact. In his *Elements*, Euclid slipped the bonds of time, space and matter by demolishing the walls of reality with a mathematical hammer and escaping into a world of pure abstraction.

• Continue reading Neuclid on the Block