Deb Brandon: Living in Radiant Color


I absolutely cannot stand the number 31. It is so…blah, and, adding insult to injury, it is opinionated. There’s nothing worse than someone who is blah, yet has strong opinions. About what? Then there are those who are right in your face, like the number 57. It is so incredibly obnoxious, always invading my personal space, talking at me, droning on and on, making me feel trapped. I want to yell at it to shut up.
My least favorite number of all is 53. I’m not sure why, it just rubs me up the wrong way. I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried confronting it face to face, but I can’t. I just can’t stand looking it in the eye. I’ve tried sneaking it into my life surreptitiously. But no matter what, it always makes its’ way to the front row and then smirks as it thumbs its’ nose at me.
On the other hand, the number 24 is such a lovely number, open, welcoming, comfortable, generous. It is a giver, not a taker. Spending time with 24 always leaves a smile on my face; it puts me in a good mood no matter what my day has been like.
When I teach, working to construct an example, I often ask my students to volunteer one of their favorite numbers. At first, they aren’t sure what it is that I’m looking for. I explain. I tell them that I don’t like 17. I just don’t, it gets on my nerves by its mere presence.
One student calls out, “But I really like 17.”
“Well I don’t. Think of another number.”
A curly brunette in the back raises her hand. “How about 7?”
I nod. “Yes, 7 is a fine number. I can work with 7.”
I start writing the equation on the board: f(x) = 7x. Then I turn and face the students. “Okay, another number.”
“C’mon guys. You can do better than that. Give me something with more meat on it.”
A swarthy young man asks, “Something like 36?”
“Excellent choice. It’s one of my favorites, so very friendly.”
I turn and add to the equation: f(x) = 7x – 36 sin(x).
As the semester progresses, it becomes routine. Sometimes I ask for favorite numbers, other times for least favorite numbers. I have no idea whether they are beginning to attribute personalities to numbers, or they are merely humoring me. It doesn’t really matter, I’m enjoying myself, and they are engaged.
I used to think that everyone had favorite and least favorite numbers. When I discovered that that was not the case in general, I assumed that it was something unique to mathematicians. But all the mathematicians I asked responded by looking uncomfortable and changing the subject. And when I mentioned that in my mind, numbers hold personalities, they gave strange looks.
24, 7, 36, 57, 9 To me, most numbers have personalities, some stronger than others. Some have personalities that are almost imperceptible. The number 1, 3, and 62 are such numbers, blah, wishy washy, quiet, uninteresting, almost invisible. On the other hand, 9, 24, and 57 have personalities that jump out at you and fill a room.
I read “Born on a Blue Day” by Daniel Tammet, a savant for whom numbers are much more than an abstract notion. To him numbers have colors, shapes, textures, and feel.
I suspect that my relationship with numbers is completely different than his. His is clearly synaesthetic, whereas mine is not; I suspect that in my case it is more due to whimsey, imagination. Also, I am no savant; through the attributes he perceives in numbers, he is able to make lengthy computations in his head, and I definitely do not have such an ability. Though it would be fun to multiply large numbers in my head through visualizing interactions between a variety of personalities attending a social function.
I’ve always had a personal relationship with numbers, though it used to be la lot vaguer; I liked some numbers more than others, I felt more comfortable with some. Over the last few years, my relationship has become richer and more personal. Having grown more distinct, more specific, I have also become able to verbalize it.
Given all the transformations I have undergone since the surgeries, I can’t help but wonder if it is somehow related to the bloody brain. Perhaps it is something to do with my new passion for life. Maybe the neurological changes are responsible for my world of numbers.
Whatever the cause, it is one of the gains that balances out the losses from the bloody brain.