Six Loves Seven

Ever since I was a child, numbers have been boys or girls. I remember moments of boredom in second grade when I looked at the number line stretched out above the chalkboard and made up stories about the digits between 3 and 9. (For some reason, 1 and 2 were too small to interest me much.) The numbers 3, 5, 6, and 9 were male, while 4, 7, and 8 were female. Six was in love with 7 and sought love advice and pick up lines from the clever trickster 5, the Cyrano de Bergerac of numbers. Meanwhile, 8 was the silent, wise woman, advising her neighbor and protégée 7 toward caution. To this day, when I call to mind these digits, their personalities and genders are as tied up in their meaning as their numerical representation. Just as 7 will eternally be the sum of 3 and 4, in my eyes it will always and forever be a girl.

My foray into the love life of digits may or may not be typical, but we all personify the world around us. Children naturally personify their teddy bears or action figures. Adults often name and genderize their cars, musical instruments, or gadgets. Historically, boats are given genders, as are ‘mother countries.’ Consider the success of Tron, a movie based on personifying computer programs. Consider the fan clubs devoted to Roombas (small, automated vacuum cleaners), and the many people who call them ‘cute’ or think of them as pets. We have one of those handy little guys, and when he is roaming around the house, I can’t help but think of him as alive.

Certain types of objects or concepts evoke personification more than others. Things that move or interact with us. Things that are important to us or that we rely upon. And certainly, things whose workings we don’t understand or can’t control. When our computer or television isn’t working, don’t we yell at it and talk to it? Isn’t there some frustration that comes from the fact that it’s not cooperating, like a stubborn child? When a vending machine “steals” our money, do we strike it merely because we think it will magically release our bag of Fritos? Or isn’t part of the reason because we’re angry at its bad behavior? It has acted unfairly; it has taken our money and reneged on its end of the deal.

Before the modern era of scientific gadgetry and examination, the whims of weather, reproduction, disease, and death were mysterious and fickle. Imagine how terrifying life would have been in such an extreme and unpredictable world, when harvests could be ruined without reason and infants struck down with inexplicable pox. It was in our nature, as creative, thinking beings, to explain the unexplainable. To create a framework in which we could try to understand the world, and in doing so, control it.

Should it surprise us that, since ancient times, societies the world over have developed mythologies and religions with anthropomorphic gods? We are inherently social animals and it is in our nature to think in terms of conscious entities with thoughts and emotions like ours. We know how to behave with each other, and if the gods are like us, then we know how to behave with them. We can make offerings to them, please them, appease them. We can win their favor, and in doing so, win ourselves good fortune. By conceptualizing the world in terms we understand, we believe we gain some purchase on our fate.

Now when I see children talking to their stuffed animals, bandaging their wounds or serving them tea, I think that they are practicing. When I remember my younger self, enraptured by the love affair of numbers 6 and 7, I think that I was in training. Like other children, I was just beginning to try to make sense of this world.

Modern Relics

For millennia, Christians have saved the corpses of saints. Worshipers would make pilgrimages to view the bodies or body parts on display and share in their holiness.

I recently listened to an NPR book tour podcast featuring Peter Manseau, author of a recent book about holy relics. He described how worshipers would be so overcome with awe that a few bit off pieces of the saints’ bodies (in one case, a toe). I was both horrified and impressed. I’ve never believed in anything strongly enough to make me want to go Mike Tyson on the dead.

The relic discussion got me thinking about the modern era, and I realized that science is teeming with relics as well. This is true both on a general and an individual level. On a general level, we can point to archaeologists unearthing ancient remains of lost civilizations and species. A recent Nova special on Neanderthals documented the genomic analysis of Neanderthal remains to answer questions about our common ancestry. More commonly, bones are carbon-dated and skeletons are modeled for their aerodynamics or for bipedal versus quadrupedal motion.

But the most fascinating kinds of modern relics come from specific individuals. They are prized for the unusual features of that individual rather than their representativeness of a species as a whole. For example, Einstein’s brain was preserved and studied. Scientists found that the size and surface morphology of his parietal lobes were different from those in non-genius controls. Fragments of Beethoven’s skull and hair have revealed that the composer died of lead poisoning, which might account for his medical problems later in life, although probably not his deafness. And scientists have been trying to get a DNA sample from Lincoln’s tomb to conduct genetic testing for a specific type of genetic illness, spinocerebellar ataxia type 5.

To understand why relics have persisted over time, it’s useful to ask what purpose they serve. Why collect the dead? As I mentioned, the ancient relics were valuable for their holiness. At the time, religion was the only path to understanding the world. Why are we here? What came before us? How can we gain control of our lives, both on Earth and after death? God was the source of those answers and the relics were a portal to god.

Despite all that has changed about our society and our ways of thinking, modern relics serve the same purpose. They may not be thought of as a phone line to god, yet we still value them for what they can explain. They tell us about our evolution and about the lives of the historical figures who shaped society and have become our modern legends. They provide a window into the nature of human genius, creativity, good and evil; a portal to ourselves. And that is something I can truly believe in.

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