Science, Tech & Environment

Is seven your favorite number? We thought so. Here's what it says about you

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Credit: Screen Capture from YouTube/Bloomsbury Publishing

Bestselling author Alex Bellos explores our affinity with the number seven.

If you're like the rest of the world, you probably long to feel unique.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Sure, the concept is a bit ironic. But we often make decisions based on a desire to stand out, from our sense of style to our musical tastes. What about when it comes to picking a favorite number?

It turns out the world’s favorite number is seven — at least, according a recent survey with more than 44,000 participants from all over the world.

Alex Bellos, the survey’s creator and author of the new book The Grapes of Math, says societies’ fondness for seven is a longstanding one, with deep cultural roots built around a desire to be unique. 

Bellos first got curious about favorite numbers in response to constantly being asked what his favorite was. (For the record, he claims not to have one.)

“At first I was so annoyed by this question," Bellos says. "I thought, you know, you’re trivializing mathematics. Until I said, ‘Well, what’s your favorite number?’ And I realized that, actually, lots of people feel incredibly passionate about numbers. And more often than not, people will have an entire story about what number they like."

And the story of number seven goes back — way back, Bellos says, to ancient Babylon.

“The number seven has actually been cultures' favorite number since as long as we know. You go back to the earliest writers we have, and there are more sevens there than any other number."

The trend toward seven spreads across different cultures and different time periods, too. Most of the world follows the seven-day week.

In China, the number seven is linked to good luck. In the Bible, there are seven sins. We've got seven seas, seven brothers, even seven dwarves ... the list goes on and on. 

But what explains this fondness?

“We react quite clearly to numbers in a way that relates to their numerical properties,” explains Bellos.

Even numbers — which can always be divided into two groups and are often used for approximations —  feel both too common and too vague to inspire an emotional connection. As Bellos puts it, "Who likes number 30? No one."

But if we look at the first 10 digits — the numbers we can count on our hands, so the numbers Bellos says we’re most intimate with — seven is the only one that cannot be multiplied or divided within the group.

"One, two, three, four, and five you can double and they stay at 10 or under," explains Bellos. "Six, eight, and 10 can be halved, and nine can be divided by three."

Seven, it seems, stands alone.

But don't discount your feelings for your favorite digit.

"Numbers are supposed to be things which are abstract ideas that signify quantity and order," Bellos says. "But they have words and they have symbols, and so they're actually part of culture and we have a much more complicated and deep relationship to numbers. We can't just see the arithmetical difference as something abstract. We interpret because we're humans. It's kind of part of who we are to ascribe emotions to abstract concepts like numbers."

Do you have a favorite? What's the story behind your favorite number. Let us know in the comments.

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