Numbers in our Contemporary Life (part1)

Therapy From early childhood and throughout the schooling system, we learn the “3R’s”: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic – the science of numbers. (Nowadays, you need


From early childhood and throughout the schooling system, we learn the “3R’s”: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic – the science of numbers. (Nowadays, you need to add a fourth “R”– Graphing!). Later, we reach a certain level in our education where were may feel rightly or wrongly (often complacently) that our levels of mastering reading and writing are satisfactory. However… What about numbers ? Generally, we do not fully realize the extent to which numbers control and regulate our lives. We are all identified by innumerable numbers from birth to the very last moments of our lives. Just reflect only on some of our important dates: birth, starting school, finishing primary school, finishing secondary school, the admission to university and then also with every stage of our education imprinted with our marks, marks and marks (percentages!). Then other numbers: the first love (the date, some of us remember!), dates of: marriage, birth of children, the first work, salaries, divorce, then blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar levels, the first operation, the passing away (not yet?) and so on. These numbers are unique to you and unique to me. They all identify you and identify me. Some numbers quantify information. These are essential to understanding facts, events, processes, laws etc. The US novelist, Nathanel West, 1903-1940, stated aptly: “Numbers constitute the only universal language”. Studies have shown that even rhesus monkeys can understand the relation between numbers 1 to 9 i.e., they are able to judge whether the specified number is smaller or bigger than the other number. So, what is the present state of arithmetic ? Unfortunately, most of the people satisfy themselves on a very low level of its cognizance. (As an anecdote, I may tell you that I was approached by a lawyer who asked me: “I have to assign a plaintiff 15% of the amount demanded by defendant; how much is it?”). Most people fear numbers if they require any further calculations: making fractions, multiplying, using proportions or inverse proportions, converting to percentages or substituting to formulas. What are the implications of this fact? It often leads to impaired judgment of the average citizen regarding handling their home economics, investment and, as the case may be, the events in their own country and on our globe. As the citizens of a “global village”, we are all affected by events not only in our place or country but even in far-away-countries. Consider these numbers: people affected by HIV, bird flu, tsunami, price of a barrel of oil, tsunami in financial markets, increasing ozone hole, decreasing shoals of fish in oceans, decreasing number of polar bears, the increase in the average yearly temperature, increasing extinction of species of animals and plants. One can present endless number of examples. The numbers can be puzzling, depressing, shocking, fascinating, mystifying or upsetting. Well, they can be… An educated, intelligent and honest person will perceive them this way. A Polish film director Jerzy Konwicki (renown for his “Ashes and Diamonds”) used to say: “only a cow does not care”. True, a cow does not know, for example, about the “mad cow” disease and does not understand what it means that a certain percentage of cows are affected by foot-and-mouth disease and blue tongue virus. There are however, unfortunately, also some examples among educated as well as decision making persons, institutions and governments who do not care. They have dubious motives to ignore some numbers (and related facts) they do not like. What will be the consequences of their arrogance to human beings in the future? A Japanese proverb says that more intelligent are those who see further… Below there are several examples of numbers compiled from the Internet, Time and Trumpet. They may not be exact; however you may find them interesting and worthy of your attention: 65 000 – estimated population of Africa’s black rhinos in 1970 3 600 – estimated population of Africa’s black rhino in 2007 2 000 000 000 000 USD – US cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so far 3 500 000 – Jews murdered in Poland by German Nazis 32 000 000 – population of Poland before II WW; 24 000 000 after the war 1500 – new HIV infections a day in South Africa 1 000 000 – Americans killed yearly by heart attacks ( 7:2 – ratio of average number of TV sets to children in the USA 1500 – number of hours, the average USA teenager spends watching TV 67% – percentage of Australian and USA men are overweight 1 in 12- South Africans who had access to the Internet in 2007 15-30 000 000 – men suffering from erectile dysfunction (NIH, USA government statistics) 690 000 000 – number of Asians living on $1 or less per day (Asian Dev. Bank) 142.8 – number of women raped per 100 000 in South Africa; 150 per day 66 000 000 – number of people in the USA suffering with arthritis, the most common chronic health problem in the USA 3% – rate of the green gas increasing per year 7 600 000 – number of cancer death worldwide in 2007 5 200 000 – Americans suffer from full-blown diabetes and don’t know it…yet. 14 000 – dolphins killed annually in Japan 400 000 000 – number of people in the world suffering from depression and mental disorders (WHO). Look again at the numbers. They alone are meaningless. However, together with the descriptive information, they carry powerful information, obviously to those who are intelligent enough to understand them. Unfortunately, it does not mean yet, that those who understand them and have authority to make decision/s to change some of the numbers/trends are willing to act… Are you already feeling depressed? You should be… You are intelligent… Till the next time… (2). PS: While proof reading, my wife counsels me that I have omitted three other important R’s. During a whole life one should learn: Respect for self, Respect for others and Responsibility for your own actions. She is absolutely Right!

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Wacek Kijewski is the author of stimulating and entertaining resource material on experimental science: SI Units, Conversion and Measurement Skills, ISBN 978-0-620-34058-8; 186pp; USD97. The book is recommended for students and lecturers of science and engineering courses. Visit and read reviews: NB: The book which was not autographed and not been sent from George has been sold illegally. The author’s address: PO Box 2358 George 6530 , South Africa
Hobbies: bridge, tennis, nature.
Representative of Botswana at World Bridge Championship, Geneva and Bridge Olympiad, Salsomaggiore.
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