MATHEMATICS, they say, is an exact science. With that claim I cannot argue, although I must confess, to me it is more of an exact mystery. I am, to the precise skill of numerical calculation what Eddie the Eagle was to the sport of ski-jumping. The fact that I passed all the requisite maths exams at school, while never really understanding the logic of the subject at all, was a tribute to a great, if astonished, dominie, who refused to give up on a dunce.
The earliest form of mechanical calculator or computer was invented more than five thousand years ago in China, probably to help people like me. It consists of a small wooden frame with beads strung on wires that represent units, tens, hundreds and so on. Called an Abacus, it is still to be found in use in parts of the Far East, Russia and also in Japan where it is know as a Soroban. Some years ago I saw an abacus being used, at lightening speed, by a street trader in Moscow. It seemed to be very efficient and just as quick as a pocket calculator.
Once , on holiday in Greece, my wife Moira and I went to a show in which one of the acts opened and closed his part of the entertainment by saying, “My name is Alan Abacus, you can count on me!” It occurred to me then that, had I been in his place I would have had to amend that statement to “My name is Chris Anderson, I can’t count at all!”
Moira, on the other hand, while looking for an error in the reconciliation of the cash balance at a large business, can usually find it in double-quick time. I’ve seen her faced with a huge balance sheet containing a forest of figures, plunge her finger down on one number and exclaim, with conviction “well, that can’t be correct!” To her, that is the logic of numbers. To me it is more akin to witchcraft. I was clever enough (lucky) to marry an accountant and there is no question as to who handles the budget in our family.
The following is one example of what to me is an impenetrable mathematical fog. A sum where the answer is always the same: take any three figure number in which the first figure is larger than the last, say 725. Reverse it, making 527, and subtract the smaller from the larger, making 198. Now add that number to the same number reversed, 891, and the answer is always 1089 whatever number you start with.
If the result of the subtraction is a two figures rather than three, say 221 minus 122 giving 99, then add a zero to the front before reversing it, that is 099 to get 990. When added up the answer is still 1089!
Try this one: ask a friend to pick a number between one and seven, double it, add 5, and multiply the result by 50. Next add 1763 (this key number changes every year, 2013 is 1763; 2014 will be 1764 and so on for every subsequent year). Then to subtract the year of his or her birth but ask not to be told. Then you can say that the first number of the three is the first number he thought of and the last three is his age this year!
These are mathematical tricks but don’t ask me how they work!
Once when Moira and I had the cruising notion we did the Baltic run, the highlight of which was a visit to St Petersburg. We travelled on an American ship and shared a table at dinner with passengers that had joined the ship at Southampton, having flown over from the United States. They were a fun group and dinner tended to extend well into the late evening. One couple, with whom we had a particular rapport, were Lil and Al. Lil had been a hostess (?) for years in a Las Vegas night club and had a terrific and infectious sense of humour. Her partner Al was a retired rocket scientist, having worked with NASA on the US space programme. As he had been warned by Lil not to “inflict on us all his boring number theories” Al usually confined his conversation in our after-dinner cigars and Drambuie sessions to music, which he loved.
That was fine until Al heard that I had had a modest win in the ship’s casino. The floodgates then opened on his pet number theories. He rattled out the how, where and when of his idea of what he called mathematical gambling. The complex reams of figures he quoted, which he claimed would dramatically shorten the odds in my favour, were positively mind blowing. So much so, that I was quite put off and gave the casino a miss for the rest of the trip.
I’m pretty sure Al never went near the Casino himself. That should have told me something! But on the other hand, he did help put folk on the moon, so maybe I missed out on winning a fortune?
First published on 17 June 2013, PC 30B Chris Anderson served in the Edinburgh City Police (1954-84) and was a valued member of its Pipe Band that won the Grade 1 World Championships in 1963, 1964, 1971, 1972 and 1975. In his eightieth year (2012-13) he wrote many articles for ThinkScotland.org based upon his wealth of policing and piping anecdotes. Following his passing in September we are pleased to publish as a tribute a mixture of unpublished stories and old repeats such as this one for readers to enjoy.