About the SA Blog Network

Roots of Unity

Roots of Unity

Mathematics: learning it, doing it, celebrating it.
Roots of Unity Home

What Is the Funniest Number?

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

Email   PrintPrint

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions….

“Yossarian saw it clearly in all its spinning reasonableness. There was an elliptical precision about its perfect pairs of parts that was graceful and shocking, like good modern art,…”

—Joseph Heller, in Catch-22

I just finished Catch-22. My edition of the book includes an essay by Jonathan R. Eller called “The Story of Catch-22.” In it, I learned that Catch-22′s original title was Catch-18. But shortly before it was published, bestselling author Leon Uris published a novel called Mila 18. Heller and his agent Robert Gottlieb didn’t want people to think Catch-18 was somehow connected to Mila 18, so they decided to change the number in Heller’s title. They tried out 11 and 14, but they weren’t happy with either one.

“After a halfhearted attempt at accepting Catch-14, Gottlieb had a late-night flash of conviction,” writes Eller. He quotes Gottlieb: “22, it’s 22! And I remember calling up Joe and saying, ‘It’s funnier than 18!’ But of course the fact is that no number is funnier than any other number, it’s complete self-delusion. But once we were convinced it was funnier, then it became funny.”

I haven’t decided whether I agree with Gottlieb that no number is funnier than any other number. I have definitely giggled at the mention of the numbers 69 and 37 (if you’ve seen Clerks, you’ll understand). The number 13 amused me last week when I discovered that not only did my hotel omit the 13th floor (more accurately, they labeled the 13th floor “14″), it didn’t even have room numbers ending in 13. The triskaidekaphobia is strong there. I find 91 funny because it’s not prime but I think it should be, and as a Douglas Adams fan, I’m always happy when I have order number “42” at a restaurant.

A triangle, heptagon, and 42-sided polygon meet at a vertex. Image: Dllu, via Wikimedia Commons

The “oo” sound in googol (a 1 followed by 100 zeroes) and googolplex (a 1 followed by a googol zeroes) make them sound funny to me. I guess that’s not surprising, given that the term “googol” was coined by a nine-year-old. I also find the word “dozen” funny because I think it’s weird that we have two words for twelve even though we mostly use a base 10 number system.

Of course, numbers don’t have to be integers. I think Champernowne’s constant 0.12345678910111213… is pretty funny. It’s the kind of number a child might come up with, but it has the important property that each digit and string of digits appears with exactly the frequency you’d expect if the digits were selected at random. This property, called “normality,” comes up every once in a while when people talk about whether the digits of pi are random. Normal numbers are funny to me because the vast majority of real numbers are normal, but it’s awfully hard to prove that any given real number is. And the integers and rational numbers—the easiest real numbers to think about—aren’t normal.

Now let’s make an irrational number in a kind of recursive process by starting with the perfectly innocuous number 0.1. That number has one one. So we add “11″ to the end of the number: 0.111. Now we have three ones: 0.11131. Now we have four ones and one three: 0.111314113. Continuing this process, we have: 0.111314113612314, and so on. Now that’s a funny number! We can get this number by taking all the entries in the integer sequence A060857 and smushing them together behind a decimal point. (Yes, there is an Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, and every sequence has its own number. The good folks at the Aperiodical write reviews of some of these sequences. That’s pretty funny.) We can also make similar numbers by starting with different sequences at the beginning. We could start with 0.11 and get 0.11213112512213…, and so on. I think numbers formed like this have a name, but I can’t remember it.

Twenty-two doesn’t make my list of funny numbers, but Catch-Champernowne’s Constant really doesn’t have the same ring, and some think that 22 seems to fit into the themes in the book. In his essay, Eller writes, “Both Heller and Gottlieb soon realized just how well the new title represented the structure of events in the novel—the soldier who saw everything twice, Yossarian’s disastrous second target pass during the Bologna mission, and the chaplain’s deja vu are key examples of the novel’s doubling structure. But all this came later—as Gottlieb observes, ‘We were just desperate publishers looking for a title.’” If we were reading Catch-14 or Catch-11, perhaps we’d see motifs in the book that made 14 or 11 seem funnier or more appropriate.

What do you think is the funniest number?

Evelyn Lamb About the Author: Evelyn Lamb is a postdoc at the University of Utah. She writes about mathematics and other cool stuff. Follow on Twitter @evelynjlamb.

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

Rights & Permissions

Comments 30 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Owl905 12:48 pm 08/5/2013

    07734 – it doesn’t quite work with this font, because the 4 needs to be open.
    To find out how funny it is, you need to stand on your head.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Kathy K. 1:02 pm 08/5/2013

    I like to think about numbers too. Though I find myself wanting to add them all up until I reduce them to one number (I know that’s weird!)
    Anyway, I think concatenation(10987654321)is funny when the last number is one because I always want to end with:BLAST-OFF.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Evelyn Lamb in reply to Evelyn Lamb 1:09 pm 08/5/2013

    Kathy K, if you like adding numbers, you’ll love the Collatz/Ulam conjecture! It’s a bit more complicated than just adding up the digits, but it’s fun to play with. You can pick a few numbers and see what happens. It’s cool that something like this is still an open problem.

    Link to this
  4. 4. engrbohn 1:14 pm 08/5/2013

    i is funny to me because it’s the source of an ongoing conversation between me and my wife that sounds straight out of Alice in Wonderland (or, perhaps, Abbot and Costello). It usually starts with something like: “Imaginary numbers don’t exist because any number I can imagine is real.”

    Link to this
  5. 5. paulbraterman 2:10 pm 08/5/2013

    I met Erdos once (he was visiting Dan Mauldin). I asked him if he thought Goldbach’s conjecture was undecidable. He was not amused.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Kathy K. 4:06 pm 08/5/2013

    Evelyn, I looked up the Collatz/Ulam conjecture and had fun trying it out on the number pi (broken up into sections of 3)For ex:314,141,415,159,592,926. It definitely reduced to the number 1 every time. I’m not a mathematician, but I can’t help but think that there is a correlation between this conjecture and pi.
    Thanks for some afternoon fun. :)

    Link to this
  7. 7. jh443 4:59 pm 08/5/2013

    The reason we have two words that describe the quantity immediately after eleven is because some items (such as doughnuts) are sold by the dozen. Three dozen means three boxes worth. Although it’s the same quantity as 36, some people wouldn’t know how to respond to a request for 36 doughnuts.

    Link to this
  8. 8. wloutet 6:20 pm 08/5/2013

    The number “2″ is funny in that is the answer to the trivia question, “what is the oddest number?”. “2″ is the answer because it is the only even prime number, which makes it pretty odd!
    Of course the number “07734″ is funny in that it spells “hELLO” upside down. And also 1729 is funny in that it is the smallest number that can be written as the sum of two perfect cubes in two different ways (1000+729) and (1728 + 1).

    Link to this
  9. 9. fredjack 10:12 pm 08/5/2013

    Catch-22 works not because the number 22 is funny, but because it is the BEST-SOUNDING of all the numbers when linked with the word “Catch”. It trips off the tongue like none other, mostly because of the three “t” sounds coming one quickly and immediately after another, like the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun. No other number has the same feel. What is funny is the insane world, peopled with its insane characters, that grows up around that number.

    Link to this
  10. 10. JoAnne.Growney 10:18 pm 08/5/2013

    I have been musing on a question that my mother used to pose when “funny” was used — does it mean”amusing” or “peculiar”?

    I conclude that 3 is funny because that’s what fit my rhyme.

    1 is honey
    2 is twine
    3 is funny all the time
    4 is square
    5 is prime
    6 is perfect – so let’s rhyme
    7′s sexy
    8′s enough

    Thanks, Evelyn, for your links to!

    Link to this
  11. 11. hernan.badino 10:40 pm 08/5/2013

    The funniest number is e=2.71828…

    e^2 was in a party of functions with many of his colleagues. All were there, pi r^2, sin^2(x) and some old-school guys like sqrt(x).

    Anyway, 2^x discovered that e^x was standing alone in a corner and says, “What’s the problem e^x? Come on! Integrate yourself into the party!”

    And e^x looks sadly at him and says, “Why? It’s not going to make a difference!”

    Link to this
  12. 12. jimmybo 11:25 pm 08/5/2013

    just watch big bang you get two funny numbers, but one of them would get me in trouble so forget that.

    Link to this
  13. 13. ilers 12:32 am 08/6/2013

    This is easy. The funniest number is 8008135.

    Link to this
  14. 14. TTLG 1:39 am 08/6/2013

    This reminds me of back when I started my first job as an engineer, in a large cube farm. Occasionally one of the other engineers would call out a number: “14!” or “37!”. The others would laugh, or chuckle, sometimes reply “that was a good one”. I was confused and asked my cube mate what was going on. He explained that they had all been working together for so long that they all knew each others jokes, so instead of telling them out in full, they simply assigned numbers to each one and sped things up by calling out the numbers. After listening to this going on for weeks, I finally got up the nerve to yell out “23!”. Nothing. Not even a chuckle. I turned to my cube mate who looked at me pityingly and said, “Some people can tell them and some people can’t”.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Dave21146 12:56 am 08/7/2013

    No two ways about it – 42 is the funniest (HHGTTG)

    Link to this
  16. 16. danchall 7:50 am 08/7/2013

    I think 288 is the funniest number but it’s two gross.

    Link to this
  17. 17. jordanhenderson 12:26 pm 08/7/2013

    Somehow, the funniest number reminds of the Zappa song, ‘The ugliest part of your Body.’, some lyrics:

    What’s the ugliest
    Part of your body?
    Some say your nose
    Some say your toes
    But I think it’s

    Link to this
  18. 18. Guy Smiley 3:44 pm 08/7/2013

    Oh there are some obvious ones
    8675309 (Jenny)
    5318008 (another upside down read)

    and the somewhat related tastiest cylinder with radius z and depth a

    tasty cylinder = pi r^2 d
    tasty cylinder = pi z^2 a
    tasty cylinder = pizza

    Link to this
  19. 19. iansand 9:54 pm 08/8/2013

    The reason we have two words for twelve is that, in times before precise measuring was possible, 12 is divisible by 2, 3, 4 and 6. For each of those divisions a fair approximation can be made by eye, without scales or rules. It is why there are 12 inches to the foot, and why the dozen was a useful medium of commerce. It is also why there are 12 pence to the shilling – if you are buying half a dozen of something the maths is a no brainer.

    On the other hand, estimating seven tenths of something, for example, is much more problematic.

    Link to this
  20. 20. feldfrei 2:28 am 08/9/2013

    73 is a funny number, too (if not the best):

    Link to this
  21. 21. feldfrei 5:34 am 08/9/2013

    More about 42:

    (1) One femtosecond is about 42 atomic units of time.

    (2) A ball rolling frictionless through a tunnel connecting two arbitrary locations on the earth’s (idealized as a sphere of homogeneous mass density) surface needs about 42 minutes for a single trip.

    (3) The maximum deflection angle (red light) of the primary rainbow is about 42°.

    (4) The ratio of the electrostatic and gravitational force between two electrons is 4.2 * 10^42.


    Link to this
  22. 22. karl 12:08 pm 08/9/2013

    I think the funniest number is like the punchline of a joke, it all depends on the context, as said 69 is funny on some situations, on a racing car I would find hilarious i, pi, or e.
    on the late series Eureka, the pizza delivery was pizza Pi (and the phone number was 314159… surely you’d burn enough calories just by dialing it to eat it guilt free)

    Link to this
  23. 23. AtlantaTerry 3:56 pm 08/9/2013

    For those who might like to watch the film “Catch-22″, it is in this month’s Movies! TV Network rotation. (August 2013)

    Movies! is a relatively new channel that is both on Comcast Cable and broadcast over the air in many US cities.

    Link to this
  24. 24. abemordent 4:18 pm 08/9/2013

    Since my parents told me I was the Beast 666 when I was a little kid, I can’t even think about 666 and keep a straight face. The left side of our license number was 666, the right side of my wife’s license number was 666, and my UPS routing number was 666, etc. The number has followed me around, but, I have always found 666 to be the funniest number. I am laughing right now.

    Link to this
  25. 25. kiteman 6:31 pm 08/9/2013

    Try dividing a whole number by 81. The results are weird!I did it on a spread sheet to make it easy.

    Link to this
  26. 26. kiteman 6:45 pm 08/9/2013

    How about I880 (I ate a toe)Not strictly a number, but it amuses me.
    I just tried dividing integers by 91. More weird apparently some non-repeating numbers, like pi.Any explanations?

    Link to this
  27. 27. kiteman 7:02 pm 08/9/2013

    I checked and found repeats after 13 to 16 places( depending on the divider)

    Link to this
  28. 28. Evelyn Lamb in reply to Evelyn Lamb 9:14 pm 08/9/2013

    Any integer divided by another integer will have a decimal expansion that eventually terminates or repeats, but the length could be very long, as you discovered. Have you ever looked at the sevenths? They’re pretty cool. After you’ve played with them a little bit, look up cyclic numbers.

    Link to this
  29. 29. bucketofsquid 11:35 am 08/12/2013

    I’ve always found 11 and 12 pretty funny because they are named wrong. They should be oneteen and twoteen because they are in the range from 10 + 1 to 10 + 9. Even thirteen is a bit amusing because from 14 to 19 the ones column value is used but not quite for thirteen.

    Actually now that I think about it they should all start with ten concatenated with the ones value as all of the other tens column numbers are. If we have twenty one and thirty one we should have tenty one through tenty nine.

    Link to this
  30. 30. glenwhitney 7:50 pm 08/19/2013

    Re #29: No, to be consistent they should be onety one through onety nine.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article