Wednesday, June 29, 2011
The Pull of Round Numbers
I am reading an archaeological book that was translated from German. The translator took all of the metric measurements and converted them to English. I find it striking that the same numbers keep coming up over and over again, because all of the numbers in the metric original started out round. For example, a German anthropologist who studied the funeral feasts of modern steppe dwellers found that they eat 11 pounds of meat per person per day, which sounds like a precise, scientific number until you realize that it is 5 kilograms. All the numbers are like this. The depth of Scythian grave shafts is 33 to 49 feet, that is, 10 to 15 meters, the length of horizontal shafts is "as much as 98 feet" (30 meters), and several large mounds are 262 feet (80 meters) in diameter. Numbers like 5, 10, 25, and 100 flash by our consciousness without registering, because they make sense to us. It is only when we see them repeatedly as 11, 33, or 262 that the degree of standardization and simplification becomes clear.