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The Naturals: A Starter Kit

One is for Unity, where there’s a school,
Two for the dyad of wise man and fool.
Three is the Trinity (Pop, Spook, and Son);
Four sounds like death, which the Japanese shun.
Five-petaled flowers our noses awake;
Six is the benzene ring, Kekulé’s snake.
Seven the commonest throw is at craps,
Eight-spoked the wheel of those Indian chaps.
Nine are the tailor-strokes tolling dead men;
Only live women get called “perfect ten.”
Here we shall stop, scansion barring “eleven”
(Though rhymes abound, such as leaven or Heaven),
Mindful that natural numbers extend
Out to infinity, world without end,
And disregarding the ones in between
Such as the spurious integer “bleen.”

Nick Humez


[0.] For what it’s worth, this little number primer can be sung to the tune of “The Sailor’s Alphabet,” q.v.

1. Unity College, a somewhat offbeat institution of higher learning, is located in Unity, Maine.

2. Binary thinking is fundamental to Western conceptualizing of the universe, and thus causes a great deal of mischief in instances where the world resolutely refuses to be divvied up so tidily.

3. A fundamental mystery of Christianity is how three persons can make up one single God. We’ll let you know if anyone comes up with a satisfactory explanation of this, but meanwhile it is worth noting that Indo-European religions and mythologies have many such triads – the Three Fates, the Three Graces, the triplet of Indra, Mitra, and Varuna, and so on.

4. The words for “four” and for “death” are homophonous in Japanese (shi), leading to a whole set of avoidance behaviors linking the two.

5. E.g., many of the original roses that are the genetic source for today’s 17-to-25-petal hybrids.

6. Chemist Friedrich August Kekulé is commonly said to have experienced the “Aha!” moment that revealed to him the structure of the benzene ring during a dream in which he saw a snake eating its tail.

7. Seven as an auspicious number is widespread, far beyond the gaming-table; there are seven sages in Japanese folklore, we sail on seven seas, a well-known mid-century musical film stipulates seven brides for seven brothers, and so on. The reverse can also happen: See also the song “Seven Rooms of Gloom,” famously recorded in the 1960s by the Motown ensemble The Four Tops.

8. The Sanskrit for “wheel” is chakra, and not surprisingly the eight-spoked wheel figures in ancient Vedic culture, as well as later coming to symbolize the Eightfold Path of Buddhism.

9. However, only three “tailors” (=teller strokes) are rung to signify a dead woman, for either sex followed by the number of years the deceased had lived. A story is told of the first Queen Elizabeth that on meeting with a delegation of eighteen men from the tailors’ guild, she greeted them with “Good morrow, gentlemen both.” If apocryphal it is well invented.

10. “A perfect ten” refers both to one’s score on a scale of one to ten and the belief that a woman who can fit into a size ten dress is the ideal size (though this is culturally dependent; see Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe’s frequent remarks in praise of the “traditional” figure for women in her native Botswana).

Bleen: The invention of comedian George Carlin, defined as a hitherto undiscovered integer between six and seven. (Not to be confused with Nelson Goodman’s bleen, a color which when you first see it looks blue but on closer inspection you decide to characterize as rather more green.)

Nick Humez is the co-author (with Alex Humez and Joseph Maguire) of Zero to Lazy Eight: The Romance of Numbers, published by Simon and Schuster in 1995. Oddly enough, when he was a schoolboy arithmetic was by no means his strongest subject, but got better.