The Silliest Number

By Jack Sheedy

My continuing research at Stonycliff College on the poet Thomas J. McSheey has unearthed the following essay, penned by McSheey, which documents (or, perhaps, fabricates) a dialogue between himself and the organist at the small Catholic college chapel as they worked together arranging hymns for an upcoming Pentecost service.

At the time, McSheey was interested in the theories of German mathematician Georg Cantor.

 *****

“I don’t understand your question,” she said with a laugh as she sat before the church organ.

“I just want to know what you think,” responded McSheey.

“You’re not making any sense,” she replied.

"I just want to hear your opinion.”

“My opinion?” she said, shaking her head. “You want my opinion on a number?”

“Yes.”

“You’re not making any sense. We should be spending our time on these hymns instead of debating numbers.”

“Yes, I know. But we’ve got weeks to go before Pentecost,” argued McSheey. “And I just want to know what you think. It’s not like I’m asking you to consider transfinite numbers.”

“I see you’ve been studying Cantor again. Last week we debated whether the number two should be a prime number.”

“Yes, and I still feel it shouldn’t because it’s an even number.”

“Please, let’s not begin that again.”

“And you said it should because it is only divisible by itself and one.”

“I know. I was there. It was a thrilling debate, almost as thrilling as our earlier discussion on the intrinsic attributes of each letter of the alphabet,” she grumbled as she removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes.

“Yes, and we agreed that by cumulative ascending value the letter Zed was the most powerful letter.”

“Yeah, maybe on a Scrabble board. And what’s with calling it Zed? You’re not British, you know. You told me yourself you were born in Boston.”

“Dorchester, actually. Fine. Letter Z. There. Are you happy?”

“Can we just get this last hymn done so we can say we accomplished something today?”

“First I want to know what you think.”

The organist stared at McSheey in defiance. After a prolonged stretch of silence she jabbed her fingers at the keys to produce a monstrous note which filled the little stone chapel, resounding off the ceilings and walls and cascading across each wooden pew.

“All right, what do you want to know?” she asked, surrendering.

“I want to know – what do you think is the silliest number?”

“Ah yes,” she replied, chuckling. “I knew it had to be something important.”

McSheey remained silent, waiting for her to continue.

“The silliest number,” she said aloud, shaking her head. “Where do you come up with this stuff? I’m sure your friend Cantor would never have concerned himself with such things.”

“Cantor’s theories were revolutionary,” remarked McSheey. “His work on transfinite numbers was considered a challenge to the very existence of God. So, yes, I agree, Cantor would not have considered any number as silly.”

There was another silence.

“I’m sure you’ve already selected your own silliest number?” asked the organist, knowingly.

“Of course,” replied McSheey.

“Of course you have,” she replied. “The silliest number? …Silliest number? …Silly? Silly can mean foolish, or weak, or lowly, or lacking common sense. What would make a number silly?”

“That’s for you to decide.”

“For me to decide,” she repeated, more to herself. “Based on what criteria?”

“Based on any criteria you like.”

“Hmmm, any criteria I like. Okay, first of all, any silly number would have a value of less than 100. It would seem to me that any number of three digits or greater is too significant to be deemed silly.”

“Agreed,” responded McSheey.

“And the numbers from zero to nine cannot be considered silly, because those digits make up all other numbers. In fact, I would consider them to be the most important numbers.”

“Now you’re getting the hang of it.”

“And all even numbers should be considered not silly, and all numbers divisible by five, and in fact, all non-prime numbers should be considered non-silly numbers.”

“Right. No composite numbers. Go on.”

“So, let’s see,” said the organist, turning over a page of music and writing out the prime numbers from 11 to 97.

“Okay, what have you got?” asked McSheey.

She read off the numbers, “11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, and 97.”

McSheey smiled.

“Your number is on this list, isn’t it?” she asked.

“Maybe.”

“It is. I know. I can tell,” she said, looking for his eyes to give something away.

“Go on.”

“It is. Isn’t it?”

“Maybe. Go on.”

“Okay, I suppose the next criterion is to select out numbers made up of only prime digits. So that leaves just 23, 37, 53, and 73.”

Again McSheey smiled.

“I’m close,” she said. “So let’s see. I’m guessing the last criterion is to select only those numbers in which the digits, when added together, make up a prime number … as in 23, where the 2 plus the 3 equals 5. All prime. The other digits – 3 plus 7, and 5 and 3, and 7 plus 3 all add up to non-prime composite numbers. So, therefore, ipso facto, 23 is the silliest number.”

“Wow, I am impressed.”

“Good. Now, since we’re both in agreement, can we get back to our hymns?”

“Agreed.”

{Footnote: It turns out that mathematician Georg Cantor did have a silliest number after all. And it wasn’t 23. In fact, it wasn’t a prime. Cantor’s silliest number was a number so large that it existed in the realm of the infinites. And it was a number so silly that it eventually transformed itself from a numeral composed of digits, evolving into a being of pure light, achieving incorporeal existence, and traveling at 186,000 miles per second away from earth to the very center of the universe where it eventually retired to while away the hours smoking a pipe on the front porch and waving to the neighbors as they arrived home from work in the evening.} 

Jack Sheedy is the author of six books, including Cape Odd.

 

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