I just watched a video about Graham’s Number, a number that is so large that apparently, if you properly tried to conceptualize the fullness of it in your head, it would require so much information and mental data that your head would actually collapse into a black hole.
That’s a pretty cool number. But it’s not my favorite number. My favorite number is 47, which is due to a story that I usually describe as being “long and boring.” But today, I thought I’d share it. Hopefully, it won’t cause your head to collapse into a black hole.
The reason why is that tomorrow is a special day: it’s my birthday! But not my 47th one. Actually, I turn 46 tomorrow. But it’s been on my mind that the day after that I begin the final approach to when I’ll be 47…at last. And when I posted this on Facebook earlier, someone asked me what the big deal was. Instead, of just explaining to her, I thought I’d put the story here and then share it with her (Hi Michelle!).
Years ago, I used to work at a place called Harvey Cedars Bible Conference, which is on the New Jersey shore. It’s a place where Christian families or youth groups could come for a week long retreat or vacation and enjoy the beach, and listen to some good Christian speakers at chapel services each morning and evening.
For six summers from when I was 17 to 22, I worked there as part of the staff, helping to do dishes, cook food, sweep up the place, and so on. There would be 60-70 of us working together, mostly high school students and some older (like myself). I made a lot of life-long (at least, so far) friends there and overall, the place had a pretty big impact on my life.
Harvey Cedars Bible Conference is a pretty conservative place. As staff, we didn’t have access to TV or movies, and this was before the internet was something we could all access. It’s also fairly remote, so unless you had a car (and few of us did), we only went far away from the Conference grounds pretty rarely. So other than listening to the radio or our own music tapes, we were pretty unexposed to general media when we were working there.
One day, when the staff were meeting, we were sharing prayer requests (this is the sort of thing Christian youth are likely to do at places like this). And one young guy (probably about 16 or 17 years of age) talked about his friend who wasn’t doing well and asked us to pray for him. Someone asked him how old the guy was, and we were all surprised to hear that he was about 47 years old!
Anyway, that was a just random event, but then some of my other friends began to notice something, and that was that the number 47 seemed to be popping up in random places. If someone was going to pick a random number near 50, but not use 50, than 47 was a likely choice. Apparently, the phone number on the side of the bus that we sometimes rode places in had digits which added up to 47, that sort of thing.
I didn’t even realize that all this was happening for a while, but eventually I began to catch on, and 47 became one of those in-jokes that you enjoy and laugh at, but that nobody else understands or thinks is funny.
The years went on and the jokes continued. As we began to get email addresses, many of us put a 47 in there (see my About page, for mine). I began to stick 47 references into my scripts and movies (check out 11:16 minutes to see the still at the top of the page in its natural context in my movie, Stingray, for one example). And when I’d get together with my old friends, we’d sit around and share references to the number 47, and we’d laugh and laugh.
But at the same time I began to notice something…47 references in popular culture, especially in what was then the modern-day Star Trek series (hmm, just noticed that the plural of series seems to be…series). There was always 47’s turning up in the technobabble…eg. Species 8472, or System 4 Planet 7, etc. That’s odd, I thought.
But for the most part, it was just our little joke.
Until the day the email came.
It was about 1998 at this point, and my friend Ryan (who was one of the early propagators of the whole 47 thing) discovered that there existed a 47 Society…a group of people, I guess, who had gathered around the whole “phenomenon” of 47, and shared their sightings and experiences on their website. To quote from their FAQ:
In their words, 47 appears to be the quintessential random number of the universe. In other words, when a number appears randomly, more often than not, that number is 47. In other other words, if you asked people to pick a number at random, more often than not, that number would be 47. Of course, if 47 shows up more than any other number then it isn’t truly random, but using the word random makes the whole phenomenon easier to describe.”
Now, true randomness doesn’t mean that everything appears in equal measure, so I don’t think the last statement is actually true. But the rest of the FAQ was quite illuminating. It traced the whole 47 thing back to a paper written at Pomona College in 1964 where Professor Donald Bentley proved that all numbers are equal to 47. Someone who later wrote for Star Trek attended the college and got his workmates into it. JJ Abrams seems to have picked this up and included 47 references in a bunch of his work.
But the thing you have to remember is that before we knew any of this, before a lot of it was popularized, this whole 47 thing was an in-joke amongst me and my friends, that grew up spontaneously during the summer when were in a quite isolated and secluded environment.
To discover that our little in-joke was actually something that went well beyond us and little group of friends was quite astounding. It was a little bit like those stories you hear where missionaries go to share the gospel message with isolated tribes and then discover that those tribes have been having dreams about Jesus for years.
Now, don’t misunderstand me here: I’m not saying that anything about the number 47 is as important or profound as the gospel, or any other world religion. I’m just saying it was weird to learn that something that we thought of as private and personal was actually something that was shared with the whole world. Or at least, a particularly geeky segment of the world.
And so now, I continue to call 47 my favorite number, and continue to insert it in my scripts and creative work, although I try not to be too obvious about it.
Do I think the phenomenon described above is real? Sure, it’s possible. I believe there are patterns in nature, for example (just look at fractals, etc.) So it’s possible that certain numbers appear “randomly” more than others.
Do I think it’s important? No, not really. I just think it’s interesting, and sort of funny. And I imagine that’s how most of the other people in the “47 Society” feel about it, although I wouldn’t actually know since I’ve spent almost no time on the site.
But tomorrow is my 46th birthday, which means after that I begin the 365 day countdown until I turn 47. I haven’t decided how I’m going to acknowledge this yet, but once I do I’m sure I’ll mention it here somewhere.