Numbers are crucial tools for imagination. A specific number can integrate enormous quantities of data, making an image that has almost the quality of narrative. For example, the number 58,226 seems arbitrary, but it also indicates the number of U.S. soldiers known to have been killed or gone missing in action in Vietnam. The vaguer number 6 million is an icon of the Nazi attempt to exterminate European Jewry during the Second World War. We can use 6 billion as shorthand to think of 6,391,300,000, the estimated number of all human beings alive on Earth today. Seeing 365 makes many of us think immediately of one year, and 1,001 calls to mind Scheherazade’s tales and the time of Harun al-Rashid. Calendar dates are also numbers chockablock with narrative. We hear 44 and 622 very differently if we know of Caesar’s assassination or Muhammad’s flight from Mecca, and if we can hear the pivotal zero year which Christ’s life represents in the Gregorian calendar used throughout the western world; and 1999’s millennial resonance reminds many now also of a popular 1983 song recorded by a musician formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.
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