Numerals, Letters, and Superstition

By McGaughey, A. W. | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Numerals, Letters, and Superstition


McGaughey, A. W., Phi Kappa Phi Forum


very high school graduate has learned about the great contribu' ' made by the Ancient Greeks to mathematics in geometry, but none of us ever heard very much, if anything, concerning their contributions in algebra. Something like 900 years passed by between the time of Pythagoras and the time of Diophantus who worked with what is now called Diophantine equations. If we look at the symbols they used as numerals, we can readily understand how difficult it must have been to perform simple computations, a necessity if one is to recognize the various properties of the number system.

The system used by the Romans is somewhat complicated but one can write numbers in the thousands by using only seven symbols. Since the symbols for five, fifty, and five hundred are used only for convenience, one could get by with only four symbols. Although the arithmetic operations using these symbols are rather cumbersome, one can make addition and multiplication tables and quickly learn how to perform elementary computations. Computation for the Greeks was much more difficult. They and some other early civilizations, used the letters of the alphabet for numerals as well as for words. Since they needed twenty-eight symbols to write numbers up to one-thousand, they added four characters. An analogous system, using our alphabet, is illustrated below (see figure 1-a). It shows the numerical value of each letter.

Immediately we can see the confusion when we write some letters. Do we mean a word or is it a number? This led to comparing the value of their names, a process that is continued in some areas even today. As an example, consider the number value of John Baker and Terry Wyzlic. Using the relation between letters and numbers outlined above, John has the number value 246 but Terry has the much greater value 3127. Obviously, Terry is a much more important person.

This false science of numbers is called Gematria. About the time of the Protestant Reformation, a Catholic theologian concluded that the beast in the Book of Revelation was represented by Martin Luther. Not to be outdone, one of Luther's followers wrote the name of Pope Leo X as LEO DECIMVS X, canceling out the letters which had no meaning as Roman numerals, then deleted the M which meant mystery and came up with DVLXVI, or 666. This is the number of the beast that is to come up out of the earth as revealed in the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Revelation. The reader may think that this was sixteenth century superstition, but it didn't end at that time. As recently as 1937, a booklet by Charles David King was published showing that if we use Roman numerals for the name of President Franklin Roosevelt as follows, FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT, REX, and cancel the letters having no meaning as Roman numerals, the remaining letters DLLLXVI equate the late President with the beast. This process of associating men with the beast began long before the time of Martin Luther. Nero Caesar was equated with the beast by his subjects many years earlier. Nero's name, in the Aramaic language, was NRON KSR and numerical value of each letter was as follows: N = 50, R = 200, 0 = 6, K = 100, and S = 60. The number value of his name was 666. It may be of interest to some that the sly old fox in our children's story books can also be equated with the beast.

Hunting amicable numbers was another fascinating game. Amicable numbers are such that the divisors of the first number have a sum equal to the second number and the divisors of the second number total to the first. Such a pair is 220 and 284. If a girl's name could be arranged, by choosing all or any part of it including initials, so that its number value is that of one of the pair, and if the boy's name could be written so that it has the number value of the other perfect number, their union would result in a perfect marriage. One wonders if Jane Robb was excited when Ronald Legg asked her to go with him to the senior prom.

Much interest was expressed in the socalled perfect numbers such as 6, 28, 496, and 8128; numbers whose divisors add up to the number. …

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