Living by numbers

Nov 22nd, 2009 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Aviron Bayonnais beat US Montauban 38-13 in a Top 14 rugby match yesterday.  It was a result that lifted Bayonne out of the relegation zone in French rugby’s top flight.  Apart from the passionate rugby fans in that corner of south-west France, there probably were not many other people who followed the progress of the match.  Certainly, there would not have been many outside of France who followed the online updates provided by the French sports paper L’Equipe.

Having checked the result and the scorers and the league table, there was another number that needed to be checked: how many people were at the match? L’Equipe provided the answer, 13,000.  But what about the other matches? Clicking through the rugby pages, all the details of each match were revealed.

But why would anyone want to know such information?  What is the point in knowing how many people watched a sporting fixture,  particularly one that had not much consequence for anyone other than the teams directly involved?

Sports statistics have always had a  fascination for some people.  Most of us probably remember kids at school who had a passion for numbers, who could recall the most obscure figures; or maybe it’s that we remember boys at school who had a passion for numbers, because, looking back, it seemed a male thing.  Girls tended not to know things like the record for a third wicket stand between Middlesex and Yorkshire in county cricket matches; boys would read books filled with such information.

There were guys who remembered cricket averages or football league tables or attendances at matches. Often they weren’t the best at sports; sometimes they were loners. I remember them because I think I was probably one of them.

Why numbers? Maybe it’s because you can retreat into numbers.  Numbers don’t hurt; numbers don’t bully; numbers don’t call names; numbers have no emotion or pain attached to them; they are simply numbers.  Numbers are print on a page that can be added and subtracted and multiplied and divided, but are equally content to be left alone.

There is probably some psychological explanation to being fascinated by stock market indices, currency exchange rates; government economic data; and, of course, attendances at sporting fixtures. I still have a 1994 Thomas Cook European Railway Timetable; I had the excuse that we wanted to travel from Sweden to Copenhagen that year, but in the times since I have sat and concocted many imaginary journeys.  A 1939 edition of Bradshaw’s Railway Timetables was on sale in a bookshop during the summer; the reason it was not bought was that I hadn’t £40 in my pocket.

Numbers are an escape from the world. Numbers have a beauty and life of their own. Numbers are constant.

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  1. Leopold Kronecker, the great mathematician, once said, “God made the natural numbers; all else is the work of man.” He was talking of the positive integers, and I remember the wonder of discovering that all the other numbers we use – negative numbers, rational numbers, real numbers, complex numbers – and all their properties, may be constructed from them using only the laws of logic.

  2. Does zero count as a natural number? I was always suspicious of it.

    I fear the numbers used by the “Quants” to create the economic bubble defied all laws of logic.

  3. You almost said it. Numbers are our way of seeing the natural beauty of the world, the universe, everything. We have a natural love for things numerical and mathematical. What is music but another such view? What is Beauty? I ask a lot of questions, but I honestly, deeply believe that (among other matters) numbers are the braille indentations which allow us glimpses of a deep fact.
    The Bible is full of numbers! Look at the sunday notice board for hymn numbers! Everywhere!

  4. There was a strong sense in some Jewish spirituality of numbers having deeper meanings:

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