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The conundrum of numbers

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Why we are mired in mathematics and numbers and have lost the magic of living

When we were very young and innocent, they entered our lives, by stealth. In the beginning, it was innocuous; it was fun and even interesting. We were asked to draw a few lines, straight, curved, like alphabets: 1, 2, 3....10...., then in word form... ascending, descending order, number line, addition, subtraction. Trouble started when “Ramu had ten chocolates and gave Seenu, three of them.”

Why didn’t he eat all ten?. Our little hands had only ten fingers to count. “Keep two in hand, one in mind,” was the beginning of confusion. When we moved forward to multiplication and division, it was confusion worse confounded. We had to learn the tables, and use them to solve problems. Whether to add or subtract or multiply or divide was a perennial question, which we could never figure out. The crucial point: there was only one answer to any problem. That was unfair. Then came the fractions, the decimals; odd, even, prime numbers; power, root.... enough was enough. The word problems such as speed and distance (trains crossing each other), time and work (if 30 people finished a job in 10 days, how many will be needed to finish it in seven days?) added to our woes.

Why should I bother about such issues? Average, Percentage, Area, Ratios: all were invented to make our life miserable. We lost our self-confidence and pride when the marks were read out in class, in front of girls, who always got 100 marks. My father asked: “the same class, the same teacher, how they get 100 and you 30?” Logical question, but I had no answers. Skill to handle numbers determines your career.

A few years back I read in the newspapers that a doctor had found out a prime number with 22,338,618 digits. So what? Why this craze, chasing a mirage while we were struggling with adding forty, five digit numbers, each time getting a different total.

(This was in the pre-historic times - BC - Before Computers, even before calculators came into vogue). It was a nightmare.

I studied rupees, annas, paise, and I was never successful in conversion or sums related to this. Mistakes would somehow creep in, and after all the struggle, I always got the wrong answer. Fortunately, by the time I had to teach students, the new decimal system had come in.

To teach in a village school was no easy job. The last period was devoted to recitation of tables. In the higher classes, it was multiplication tables of fractions: 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, 1/8 and 1/16! It went on like: 1 × 3/4 = 3/4, 10×3/4= 7-1/2, 100×3/4=75. (2, 20,200 and not the conventional style of 1, 2, 3). There was a rhyme; one led, and others repeated. I was familiar with quarter and half, could manage three-fourths with some effort, but 1/8 and 1/16 — it was bizarre. These tables were not in the book of tables. But students, especially girls, were vigilant, and they would correct any mistakes; I just nodded in appreciation, not knowing what was wrong and what was right. But the senior teachers had taught these tables with ease.

Of course now one need not know any of these.

I should share another sample:

When I purchased from an old lady 350 grams of cabbage at Rs.35 a kg, how much I had to pay. She said without any calculation: “give twelve rupees”. I was taken aback. I saw my wife, she saw me. Both faces were blank. I paid, came back home and I used my calculator to satisfy myself. (It was easy: 50 gm would cost 1.75 and multiplied by seven, 12.25. If you knew the 3/4 table it was easier. In this respect, the supermarkets are better, even if in fractions, you get a printed bill and you need not verify).

I understand lakhs; crores with some difficulty. But lakh crores, billions, trillions... absolutely impossible, beyond my comprehension.

In the good old days you had to remember only your door number. Later the PIN code was added and we had to remember many PIN numbers. Similarly, phones. In the beginning they were in three or four digit numbers. Then more numbers were added. With STD we had to remember the codes. With mobile telephones life has become much easier; the only problem was to remember our own ten digit number. Bank accounts had three digit numbers and with core banking it is now eleven digits. Not to speak of ATM codes for various banks you had accounts with. PAN and Aaadhar added to your problems.

These are minor issues when we look at the larger picture. Sometimes, numbers play havoc in the lives of governments and CEOs. Governments had fallen and CEOs had lost their jobs because of numbers. The irony is that numbers do not tell the whole truth. They are generated. They are not neutral. Like statistics they may lie, even if we give allowance for misinterpretation.

Workers toil for a year and all their effort is reduced to the bottom line, a single number. Brides burn and students commit suicide because of numbers, you may call it dowry or marks. Numbers are the common denominator; everything is reduced to numbers.

At the global level, population, pollution, world trade, bullion and diamonds, auctions, oil, commodities, sports, budgets, deficits, deaths, refugees, development indices, millennium goals and a million figures are published daily. Open any newspaper, there are a hundred number-related news items every day.

Economics has econometrics and statistics; history has years; archaeology and geography have figures, not to speak of physics or astronomy. Even medicine has need for numbers. New technology has brought not just zeroes and ones but also fresh bytes (MB, GB etc.) to add to our misery.

A few villagers were trying to measure the height of a flag pole. A man passing by removed the pole, laid it down, measured the length and went away. The villagers laughed at his ignorance. We wanted to know the height but he has told us its length.

We are struggling to measure our success in life with some numbers. Has life any dimensions or is it just an idea or an abstraction? There is no scale, standard, no measurement. From a multi-dimensional multiverse we are moving towards a unidimensional universe of numbers. Numbers dominate, determine and regulate. They conspire and conduct an orchestra, but alas there is no music emanating, only a moan, a helpless exasperation. Children played with snow balls but for Warren Buffet it delivered a different message.

Tagore lamented: “I smile at your play with that little bit of broken twig. I am busy with my accounts adding up figures by the hour.”

We have lost the magic of living, and are mired in numbers.

Numbers are ubiquitous. We are surrounded by numbers; we are drowned in them. Their hold on our lives is total and complete. It is numbers Raj. Numbers shock, inflict damage, uplift, give hope and confidence, disappoint, tyrannise, help policy wonks to confuse. Numbers mean many things to many people.

Numbers may be used or misused. We cannot imagine a world without numbers. We need them but we detest their hold on us. We do not know whether digitisation will bring any relief to the harried man on this planet.

With numbers we win; with numbers we lose.

sundaresansiva37@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 4:12:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-conundrum-of-numbers/article21248481.ece

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