A Number for the Ages

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Have skipp’d from sixteen years of age to sixty
–William Shakespeare, Cymbeline

I just turned 60, and the last thing I want to do is add to the navel-gazing from the hordes of ’49ers celebrating that birthday. On the other hand, the number 60 itself is a trip.

I don’t claim the intimate relationship with numbers of, say, autistic savant Daniel Tammet, who has recited Pi (3.141…) to 22,514 decimal places from memory in a little over 5 hours. Daniel feels numbers. For him, 289 is hideous, while 25 is the kind of number you’d invite to a party.

But some numbers do resonate for me. One, of course, is the loneliest number that I’ll ever do. Eleven and 200,000 are funny, while 91 is kind of depressing. And to me, 60 has always felt solid; in this world of impermanence that counts for something.

60 is to mathematicians what a hot fudge sundae is to, well, me. Its elixir-like qualities begin with its versatility. It’s a highly composite number because of its many divisors: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20 and 30. 60 is the sum of its unitary divisors (excluding itself) — 1, 3, 4, 5, 12, 15 and 20 — and is therefore a unitary perfect number. (There aren’t many of these. The fifth in the sequence is 146361946186458562560000.) It’s also a Harshad number, but not an all-Harshad number. (Harshad means “great joy” in Sanskrit. Guess 60 just missed the varsity, but who doesn’t love an underdog?) It’s an abundant number but not a weird number. Best of all, by virtue of its being ten times a perfect number, 60 is a semiperfect number, which to us mortals is as good as it gets.

The whipped cream on the sundae is the news that 60 is the smallest number divisible by the numbers 1 to 6. The cherry on top is that it’s the sum of a pair of twin primes (29 + 31), as well as the sum of four consecutive primes (11 + 13 + 17 + 19). That it’s nested between two primes — 59 and 61 — gives 60 shelter from the rest of the non-primes.

Our decimal system is easy to understand — we have ten fingers. But the ancient Sumerians eschewed simplicity and, counting various bones in each finger, came up with the 60-based, vaguely erotic sexagesimal numerical system. In a triple play worthy of Major League Baseball’s Tinkers to Evers to Chance, the Sumerians tossed the system to the Babylonians, who flipped it to the Egyptians, who gave us the 60 second minute and 60 minute hour.

In the material world, it’s well known that Babe Ruth’s 1927 record of 60 home runs retains its majesty even though it’s been shattered by players with the advantages of longer seasons and muscle-bulging drugs. But who knew that 60 is the number of feet in the standard measurement tool to evaluate an automotive launch on a drag strip? (A more quotidian auto-related calculation is the amount of time it takes for a vehicle to go from 0-60 mph.)

Fans of popular music will tell you that Sixty Minute Man is a seminal rhythm and blues hit first released in 1951 by Billy Ward and His Dominoes. (Future Drifters centerpiece Clyde McPhatter led this group; it had nothing to do with Fats.) Some regard the double entendre classic as the first rock and roll record. It was even sung in promotion campaigns by Ed Bradley of the iconic 60 minutes TV series.

There are deeper occurrences that may suggest a spiritual quality to the number 60. In the Song of Songs, 60 valiant knights surround Solomon. The Buddha sent out 60 disciples to spread the word that meditation can end suffering. And it can hardly be a coincidence that 60 is used only once in the Koran, while the word ‘Sabbath’ is used 60 times in the New Testament. It’s not clear why Christian theosophist J. Boehme calls this number “the Earth,” but there you have it.

Is this vast storehouse of useless information about 60 a way to deny the import of a potentially perilous birthday? Maybe, but so what? Zero to sixty years on the planet went by in a flash. There’s plenty of time for profundity later. Now, where’s my hot fudge sundae?

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