Friday, July 13, 2018

More Nonsense about the Number 13

Jonah Goldberg provides a sad roundup of false theories about why the number 13 is unlucky:
Dossey traces the fear of 13 to a Norse myth about 12 gods having a dinner party at Valhalla, their heaven. In walked the uninvited 13th guest, the mischievous Loki. Once there, Loki arranged for Hoder, the blind god of darkness, to shoot Balder the Beautiful, the god of joy and gladness, with a mistletoe-tipped arrow.

"Balder died and the whole Earth got dark. The whole Earth mourned. It was a bad, unlucky day," said Dossey. From that moment on, the number 13 has been considered ominous and foreboding.

There is also a biblical reference to the unlucky number 13. Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, was the 13th guest to the Last Supper.

Meanwhile, in ancient Rome, witches reportedly gathered in groups of 12. The 13th was believed to be the devil.

Thomas Fernsler, an associate policy scientist in the Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center at the University of Delaware in Newark, said the number 13 suffers because of its position after 12.

According to Fernsler, numerologists consider 12 a "complete" number. There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 apostles of Jesus.

In exceeding 12 by 1, Fernsler said 13's association with bad luck "has to do with just being a little beyond completeness. The number becomes restless or squirmy."
No, really, it does not. Jonah, I thought better of you than this. The real explanation is not hard to find. Heck, it's on wikipedia.

Goldberg compounds the problem by linking to that awful Mental Floss "Thirteen reasons people think the number 13 is unlucky" article, which has 13 more incorrect explanations.

Sigh. I suppose I'm going to be fighting this one for the rest of my life, just like pepper and rotten food.


G. Verloren said...

For what it's worth, despite not being previously aware of the Babyonian astronomy treatise you mention in the other post, I immediately suspected as I was reading that the answer must be based in lunar months being a bit too short to coincide neatly with solar years.

I have to admit, I experience similar frustration when people harp on about Star Wars, and how the Kessel Run is measured in lightyears. "A lightyear is a unit of distance, not time! How stupid can you get?"

None of them realize that there's a long tradition of measuring trips not by the amount of time they take, but by the number of miles (or other units of distance) that they can be completed in. Where does that work out? In situations where there's no single set route, and different branches of the route can be taken at different times depending on current conditions.

And where do you find that sort of situation? Well, at the very least in sailing down rivers like the Mississippi, particularly in the heyday of steamboats. You see, the Mississippi used to have a habit of cutting itself off as waterways shifted due to things like rain and floods.

When the river makes a big horseshoe loop around for many miles, there's the potentiality of a shortcut. The shortest route would normally not be useable, because it would require taking the boat over what is normally dry land. But if the river floods and spills its banks, those little channels, valleys, and other shortcuts can actually become full of water deep enough to take a steamboat across, and you can shave many miles off the trip distance.

Of course, this came with considerable danger - many steamboats got stranded in shortcuts that were too shallow to clear the bottom, or too narrow to slip through without wedging in, or that had treacherous obstacles like rocks or trees to tear out the bottoms of steamboats, leaving them permanently grounded well above the normal height of the river once the water receded. Only the most skillful pilots could risk taking shortcut after shortcut to set records on how short of a trip they could make between one river port and another.

The same system of measuring trips by shortest distance could also be used in contexts like sailing through short-lived openings in arctic ice. Or, as they use it in Star Wars, in the context of traveling a shipping route through dangerous interstellar regions, passing closer than usual to hazards like black holes, or cutting through asteroid fields that you would normally take the time to go around.

There are just some things that the majority of people are going to continually keep insisting don't make sense or have no answer, despite the actual answer being definitively known. It's just a glitch in the Matrix, I guess.

Anonymous said...

In Spain the unlucky day is tuesday the 13th. But thanks to that i’ve learned about Paraskavedekatriaphobia.... I loved triskaidekaphobia, but maybe i’ve to make a space for that new one. n13