2016-02 From the President: Life by the Numbers

Life by the Numbers—

Every morning when I step on and off the bathroom scale, I think about how much of life is managed by numbers. How many things do we count, record, and manage, or not, because we attach numbers to them? It has been said “if we can measure it, we can manage it.” This management philosophy promulgated by W E. Deming has led us to record a lot of the numbers of our lives. It feeds our curiosity about the relationship between one event and another, and it enhances our sense of self-control. How many of us have a Fitbit, a kitchen scale, and bookkeeping software? These counters help us generate data on our lives. Whether they make us happier or allow us to manage our activities better is questionable, but they do give us the ability to gather a lot of numbers about our lives.
Everyone from philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists to musicians and poets use numbers as a way to talk about life, as a way to order thoughts and express ideas. Numerology is an old, old concept. A Wikipedia entry states, “St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354—430) wrote, ‘Numbers are the Universal language offered by the deity to humans as confirmation of the truth.’ Pythagoras, too, believed that everything had numerical relationships, and it was up to the mind to seek and investigate the secrets of these relationships or have them revealed by divine grace.” (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagoras)
What secrets do our numbers reveal? What is the relationship between our numbers and our attitudes and behavior? I submit that the most revealing information about one’s values is the numbers in their checkbook and the list of purchases on their credit card statements. We spend our money on those things we value the most. For some it is travel, for others it is music, and for others it may be cars or clothes or continuing education. Related to our spending is the numerical measure of our financial wealth, income, investment, charity donations, and the minimum required distribution from retirement accounts. Then come tax rates and tax deductions, and the final tax bill.
If you listen to the news, you are bombarded with economic numbers such as interest rates, inflation rates, GNP, and the price of oil, to say nothing about the percentage points by which one leading presidential hopeful is ahead of another. And then there is men’s favorite number—gas mileage (MPG). This brings us to MPH, miles to destination, tire pressure, and so on. Sports fans spout game scores (Gophers are up 28 to 7) or the number of games won (Vikings are 7 in 12).
There are numbers germane to our physical health—our height, weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate, etc. The calories we eat in snacks and over the whole day, and the number of steps we take, the number of hours we sleep, and the glasses of wine we drink. How many yellow pills should I take? Numbers are used to manage our health care.
Because Minnesotans are obsessed with the weather, there is always talk about temperature and wind chill, rainfall and snow depth. Then there are the vacation days, the shopping days until Christmas, and calendar days, clock hours, and life expectancy. At what age should I retire? Why does time go so fast?
The mathematically inclined talk about prime numbers. They know the Greek letter and the number for Pi, and the meaning of a derivative, a percentage, a tangent, a log scale, and a correlation. These may not matter much to most of us in everyday life, but they underlie many of the inventions we enjoy every day. We use kilowatts of electricity, megabits per second of bandwidth, and gigabytes of data storage.
When we sing or dance or play a musical instrument, there are the beats per minute, the notes per measure, and the time to hold a note. We may use these numbers without thinking about it, but they control the activity. Poets consider mathematical word patterns or qualitative metres such as the iambic pentameter to define the rhythm of poetry. Sonnets have 14 lines.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote perhaps the most memorable sonnet in the English language in 1850. Its first line is “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Even in the ethereal world of poetry, counting is important. Incidentally, I count at least 10 ways she loved, in her 14-line sonnet.
Numbers—love them or hate them, they define our activities, they measure our values, and they manage our health. Consciously or not, we live by the numbers, the most illusive of which is our perception of time.
— Jean Kinsey, UMRA President jkinsey@umn.edu