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Does 11/11/11 Have Anything to do With Science?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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When the ensemble of cesium beam and hydrogen maser atomic clocks strike 11:11 today at Boulder’s National Institute of Standards and Technology nothing will happen. Never mind the fact that the numbers are both binary and identical and that the square of any cluster of 1′s is going to be palindromic as well. 11 x 11 = 121 and 121 x 121 = 14641 [edit.comm.: first draft of the post had a typo here, omitting the 2 in both instances of 121].

Pop culture is considerably less oblivious. Tumblr microblogs are reveling in the fact that we’re also on the 11th Doctor Who and Spinal Tap fans are observing Nigel Tufnel day in honor of the legendary fake popstar’s legendary fictitious amp.

A group of British explorers are launching a reenactment of the Scott / Admunson race to the pole today to raise funds for the British Royal Legion today in honor of Veterans day which is observed on November 11th because on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 1918, the ceasefire between The Allied Nations and Germany went into effect. Granted, “The War to End All Wars” officially ended on June 28, 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles but consistency makes for good symbolism. Scientific?

Palindromes and symmetry have a decided emotional resonance. A surge of weddings are scheduled for today because the symbolic symmetry corresponds to the two individuals taking the vows of matrimony. A spike in the number of births and of deaths would not be surprising. Science?

I read Stephen Jay Gould’s “Questioning the Millennium” in 1999 while writing and rehearsing my first New York full length solo performance, GreenlandY2K. Gould’s observations about numerological coincidences gave context and ground to the story I was creating about the millennium, the Y2K bug and a doomed expedition to the North Pole coinciding at the stroke of midnight.

“Numerological coincidences remain fascinating precisely because they can boast no general or cosmic meaning whatsoever,” Gould explains in I Have Landed: the End of a Beginning in Natural History. The “eerie fascination” many people have with “coincidence and numerology” Gould attributes to the fact that people have “so thoroughly misunderstood probability.” He cites famous historical coincidences –Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the 4th of July; Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both born on February 12, 1809– as examples and points out that, by ordinary rules of probability, both coincidences are unremarkable. In Questioning the Millennium, Gould details how the 1,000 AD Gregorian miscalculation continues to skew our calendars because you actually start counting at one, not zero.

As the national standard for frequency, time interval, and time-of-day and a vital contributor to time and frequency standards throughout the world, it is not NIST’s place to acknowledge anything exceptional about 11/11/11. Will NIST’s employees be as irreverent about the coincidence as the institution they work for or will they gather round the clocks? A surge in attention, interest and activity would not be inconsistent with the principles of probability, or the principles of human nature.

Susanna Speier About the Author: Susanna Speier is not a scientist. The "ear" for layman-friendly science explanations, that The New York Times​ deemed "excellent," however, helps her gain back door access. She talks to scientists whenever she can and conversations sometimes turn into collaborations. Five of her plays have been produced; over 100 of her articles have been published and one of her screenplays remains in liminal purgatory. She dayjobs as a freelance social media specialist and digital journalist. Follow on Twitter @SusannaSpeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 17 Comments

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  1. 1. amiabledave 2:59 pm 11/11/2011

    Since when does 121 and 11 x 11 = 12321?

    Link to this
  2. 2. jamesonJones22 3:08 pm 11/11/2011

    111*111=12321
    121*121=14641

    *Be sure to use strikethrough on the revised page so that future readers can see the correction.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Bora Zivkovic 5:21 pm 11/11/2011

    Thanks for catching this. Fixed now. Had only 7 minutes to edit in order to post this at exactly 11:11 EST, so checked language and did not check the math (my bad, should not have made the assumption that it was free of typos).

    There are several ways to be transparent about fixing errors. I used the one preferred by me. And as Blog Editor at SciAm, and a loud proponent of transparency for many years, I do not appreciate the passive-aggressive hollier-than-thou tenor of the comment that tries to lecture me on this.

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  4. 4. oldgeo 5:58 pm 11/11/2011

    11/11/11 let’s see… wasn’t that 2000 years ago?

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  5. 5. eddiequest 6:50 pm 11/11/2011

    I had more fun dividing 1 by 243.

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  6. 6. Unscientific 9:06 pm 11/11/2011

    Re: Comment #3 — “hollier-than-thou,” ehh??? Isn’t it still a bit early for Christmas decoration references? (Ho ho ho!)

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  7. 7. Bora Zivkovic 9:36 pm 11/11/2011

    As a non-Christian, I do not understand the reference, but I assume I misspelled a word in there. Right? There are two similar words in English, one of which may have some connection to a Christian holiday that I may be unfamiliar with?

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  8. 8. psd.. 2:04 pm 11/12/2011

    Surely you need not be Christian to associate ‘holly’ (the plant) as decor for the holiday. This is called the Scientific ‘American,’ correct? And a presence in this country (even some of Europe for that matter) would lead one observe the berried plant in use as decoration during Christmastime and associate it with the season.

    It has no religious significance whatsoever, and your followup response makes you come off as petty and petulant. Perhaps spending less time taking offense to comments posted would solve this problem.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Bora Zivkovic 6:59 pm 11/12/2011

    Perhaps one has to sound petty and petulant when responding to petty and petulant comments by others?

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  10. 10. Solokov 7:19 pm 11/12/2011

    Looooove scientific american, a great collection of intriguing ideas and always followed up by entertaining yet inevitably pointless bickering.

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  11. 11. SusannaSpeier 7:56 pm 11/12/2011

    Unscientific and PSD…
    “Does 11/11/11 Have Anything to do With Science?” is a blog about palindromes, symmetry, numbers, probability and perception. It is not about Christianity. It is also not about botany or the etymology of the English language homophones Hollier and Holier / “holly” and “holy.” Please respect my request to keep the conversation useful, productive and topical.
    Thanks,
    Susanna

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  12. 12. al 10:52 pm 11/12/2011

    These inumerate pearls of wisdom belong on the History Chanel or National Geographic. Please keep SA scientific.

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  13. 13. SusannaSpeier 3:15 am 11/13/2011

    al –
    Thanks for the feedback. I can’t speak for the Scientific American editors but a simple keyword search brought up 47 links. http://bit.ly/rKtKyY Do you feel his other writings are misplaced or just the enumerative ones?

    Link to this
  14. 14. SusannaSpeier 1:51 pm 11/13/2011

    Here’s the link to Stephen Jay Gould’s “Questioning the Millennium,” published by Random House, btw. http://www.randomhouse.com/book/70013/questioning-the-millennium-by-stephen-jay-gould
    The concept of the Gregorian Miscalculation took a while for me to wrap my brain around. In Questioning the Millennium, Gould embrace the opportunity to walk layman readers through the miscalculation, step by step. As much of its relevance dissipated after 2001, however, it is not referenced as commonly as his more famous works were.

    Here is the New York Times Review of it: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/g/gould-millennium.html

    Link to this
  15. 15. sperkins 5:44 pm 11/13/2011

    Fix your lede, please. The “T” in NIST stands for Technology, not Time.

    Link to this
  16. 16. Dr. Strangelove 2:52 am 11/14/2011

    Susanna,

    What do you think of 12/21/12? Maybe you should write something about it. Here’s a good reference.

    http://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/2012-and-counting/

    Link to this
  17. 17. SusannaSpeier 12:30 pm 11/14/2011

    Dr. Strangelove -

    What an impressive body of research on the myths surrounding 12/21/12! I appreciate the suggestion and the link, however, it is unlikely I will revisit the topic next year because, while the myths, numbers and patterns may be new, Stephen Jay Gould’s ideas will not have changed.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gould’s ideas about probability gets revisited. It wouldn’t even surprise me to see new links to this article show up as they did on Urban Legends Chronicler and Debunker, David Emery’s post last Friday: http://urbanlegends.about.com/b/2011/11/11/11-11-11-meaning.htm?r=facebook

    Link to this

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