Donald Lang on numbers

There was a certain amount of anticipation in the press about the stuttering date 9/9/99, and one could have even included the century 9/9/999, or made it a German denial to an offer of any date “Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein! Nein!”

As far as I am concerned it all started with 3/3/33. At that time, Hitler had been in power for a bit over a month. Goering was sweeping out the last vestiges of democracy from Prussia. In the US, Hoover had been swept aside in the polls, and was making a clean sweep in the White House.. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated a couple of days later there was not even anything to write with in the oval office, much less a folder of transitional suggestions. While much of the world held its breath about those two countries, I took a different line. I spent the day practising the new activity of breathing at all.

Came the 4/4/44. I don’t remember anyone but me taking much notice. I was already fascinated with most numbers, with the possible exception of those that appeared on school reports alongside the subject of writing. The tide of Fascism was long past its peak and was visibly ebbing. While we did not realise it then so was the life of FDR. General MacArthur was well along a path that would see him wade out of the tide in the Philippines a few months later. A tide that operated on the 6/6 that year would eventually carry another general into the White House. In New Zealand, in India, in Germany, in Canada and maybe even in Poland many were more interested in a struggle over a heap of strategic rubble that had once been a monastery on a hill in Italy, and is one again. But that does not bring the young men back. In London, a day earlier, the Prime Minister paused in the conduct of the war to write a letter starting “Let me have a report on why the Witchcraft Act, 1735, was used in a modern court of justice………………………………………. ”

By the 5/5/55 I was studying mathematics full time, but the numbers game in my university that year had more to do with ructions in student government. In Moscow more serious games were still being played out behind inscrutable walls within the Kremlin to.decide the next number one, years after the death of the resident expert. In Washington many people were becoming concerned about the number of heartbeats separating Richard Nixon from the Presidency. In Australia, as I came to know, there was a student song “There’ll always be a Meniies, while there’s a BHP, …” and those two fitted together like iron and steel for many more years.

On 6/6/66 there were people in the Pentagon who believed that numbers were all that mattered, and were preparing to use them in Viet Nam. Officially Richard Nixon was not kicking around numbers any more, or being kicked around by anyone else. For me the number 3 was the countdown of days remaining as a bachelor. An acquired Australian background kept me interested even in Tippacanoe County Indiana in what was going on in Canberra now that Bob Menzies had stepped down. In China, people counted on the thoughts of Chairman Mao.

Five Australian Prime Ministers and three US Presidents later we had lived through interesting times in both countries. On 7/7/77 that other lucky number 3 was the number of ankle-biters at home. I signed a document that day asking for a promotion that actually arrived the following year. On the world stage some people counted mouths to feed and others counted warheads in waiting.

By 8/8/88 that number was somewhat overshadowed by a year in which all was ‘bicentennial’. I have some evidence that I was beginning to worry about drowning in unread paper, and entertaining a suspicion that I was “never going to get it all done.”

So we come to the great day on which I was half a dozen decades, half a dozen years, half a dozen months and half a dozen days old. And another half a dozen days until I had been married for half my life. I have been cautioned against making comments featuring comparisons about “the better half’.


In reviewing the past I became intrigued about what people at the other end would have predicted then. Several of those who greeted my arrival would have been unsurprised by WWII, but at the next land mark might have made confident predictions of the coming WWIII. There were daring predictions that materials “like bakelite” would revolutionise the construction of many items to be found in the home. At that landmark, or the next one, many would have rated penicillin and DDT as joint miraculous achievements.

I cannot think of any reason to believe that there was a slide rule within five miles of my birth, or anyone within fifty kilometres now who uses one. Somewhere in the middle years about a third of my acquaintance carried one, and possibly a set of four figure log tables as well. That age group now carries the sort of computer that was impossible when I was born and a generation later would have crowded a large building while overloading local power supplies.

In that first generation electric power was good for all. There could now be second thoughts about the rate of increase in consumption. In the last two generations the production has increased six fold. If you decided to make do with the earlier level, there is now enough nuclear capacity to produce it. There are of course around three times as many people as when I was born. I think I waited, not consciously, half my life before I first heard of anyone lying down in front of a bulldozer to stop “progress” In fact I think the first one I heard of lay down behind it and earned a Darwin award before such things were invented..

At my fourth landmark the only reason that the New York Times had not withdrawn its earlier assertion that a rocket would not work in space was that it hoped that it had been forgotten. They withdrew and apologised, I think, on the day a man landed on the moon. People who withhold apologies for too long sometimes get laughed at for their pains. I have seen a scientific paper, which I think was published in my lifetime, ‘proving* that rocket flight even as far as the moon was technologically impossible. When the astronomer royal poured scorn on the idea of space flight weather and communication satellites were less than a decade away – and not in public discussion.

In the society I joined at birth most women spent half their life worrying about what would happen to their lives if they became pregnant in the next year, or because they were already pregnant.

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