2 1. A Baker’s Dozen

Mathematicians confronted with such humbug wrinkle their noses

in disdain. Of course, they recognize that twelve is an important num-

ber but its preeminence is to be attributed not so much to its mystical

properties than to the fact that a dozen can be divided without a re-

mainder by 2, 3, 4, and 6, not to mention 1 and twelve itself. Twelve,

therefore, has twice as many divisors as 10 which can be divided only

by 2 and 5 aside from 1 and itself. This is the reason why twelve

came to serve as the basis of the duodecimal system which prevailed

in the Anglo-Saxon world. The Ancient Romans preferred the num-

ber ten which has the important advantage that school children and

less numerically able business folks can count up to that number by

using both of their hands.

Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the mathematicians

Charles de Borda, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, and Antoine-Laurent

Lavoisier fully recognized this advantage. They sided with the finger-

counters and suggested to the French Academy that the decimal sys-

tem be used as the only legal standard for measuring lengths and

weights. (Borda further argued that the day should be divided into

10 hours with an hour divided into 100 minutes, each of 100 seconds,

but this proposal never went very far.)

Let us turn to the number six. In antiquity, six was considered

a perfect number because the sum of its divisors, other than itself,

is equal to itself (1 + 2 + 3 = 6). How about seven and thirteen?

As far as mathematicians are concerned they are neither better nor

worse than six or twelve, but they are of greater interest since they

have no divisors, other than one and themselves. Such numbers are

known as primes; these are the atoms which make up all the rest of

the numbers.

Numerologists and other mystics who believe in the magical prop-

erties of numbers usually credit Pythagoras as their guide. The Greek

philosopher did indeed try to understand the cosmos with the help of

whole numbers and geometric shapes. While we might be tempted to

consider many of his so-called discoveries simplistic, Pythagoras was,

in fact, a pioneer and his dictum “all is number” was revolutionary.

But the Pythagoreans’ concept of the world remained severely lim-

ited. It was confined to natural numbers and fractions. As soon as his