One, two, three, four, five, Once I caught a fish alive…

People keen on numbers ascribe great truth to them. For the superstitious the today’s date is a moment to be cherished. There are reports of a sharp rise in weddings on 11.11.11. I read about a couple who got married on September 9, 2009, and decided to take a divorce just today – on November 11, 2011. In all likelihood they expect this date today to change their life for the better, just as they expected the day of their marriage would do two years ago.

I also love numbers – but not for their mysticism. In fact, I do not see any mysticism in them. I have always loved them for the joy of life they gave me. As a child I was amazed to read that the future German mathematician Gauss, when he was a schoolboy, managed to find the sum total of the numbers 1 to 100 within a few minutes ­ by simply adding 1+100, 2+99, 3+98, …50+51 and by further multiplying 101 by the number of such pairs (50).

Mind-boggling for me was he thought of how much grain could be collected from a chessboard if you place one seed on the first square, two seeds on the second one, four on the third, eight on the fourth, sixteen on the fifth, and so on – with exponential increase ­ to the last, 64th square.

A special charm was in the 18th century collection of Magnitskyi’s math problems: A man can consume a barrel of drink (Magnitskyi didn’t specify the type of the drink :-)) within 14 days, and when assisted by his wife, he can consume the same barrel within 10 days. Prey, answer: within how may days will his wife drink the barrel all by herself?”

Or the well-known problem by Leo Tolstoy: “There flew a goose who met a wedge of geese. The goose said: “Good morning, one hundred geese!” “We are not 100 geese”, the geese said. “If, additionally, there was the same quantity, plus a half of the original quantity, plus a quarter of the original quantity, and plus you, one goose, then we would be 100 geese.

Question: How many geese were flying?”

On days when math was the first period in my senior forms of high school, I could (being carried away by the complexity of the problem and by beauty of the logical insight into that complexity) sit over the problem well into the afternoon – just to be aroused from my addiction by the sixth-period teacher (in literature): “Vitaliy, are you doing mathematics?”

Regarding mysticism in numbers, I remember a story about a man who had bad luck in gambling. He went to a fortune-teller a told her about his being down and out. The fortune-teller said: “You will have good luck with number 6.” So, the next six years, six months and six days the man was not gambling, he was saving up. In the morning after that “inactivity period” he got up at 6:06, took Bus 6, and went as far as the sixth stop. He arrived at the hippodrome, went to the booking office No 6 and bet all his money on the horse whose number was six. In the race that horse finished sixth.

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