A tendency to double up on numbers runs in my family. My mother and one of her sisters share the same birthdate. My father and one of his brothers died on the same date in February. I was born on my youngest uncle's 10th birthday. Therefore, it's not at all surprising that my wife and I -- who met on Valentine's Day and were wed the following Thanksgiving -- have two sons, born three years apart, on Nov. 26.
All of these facts are true, but purely coincidental. No logic binds them together. If I persuade myself or others that numbers can run in families, the cause of this belief lies in something both perfectly irrational and profoundly human -- the strength of our compulsion to find meaning and significance, even where there is none, in the world around us. Here lie the roots of human credulity in such matters as consulting the petals of daisies to see if we are loved or being lured at grocery story checkout counters to buy tabloid newspapers that carry stories about pregnancies lasting 17 years.
In "The Magic Numbers of Doctor Matrix," a selection of his columns appearing over a 20-year period in Scientific American, Martin Gardner explores in a most delightful and entertaining way the notion that numbers and letters of the alphabet have some secret meaning for those who are initiated into their higher mysteries.
Gardner is playful, but Dr. Irving Joshua Matrix and his daughter Iva, the fictional characters who pop up in surprising places in every chapter of "The Magic Numbers," are not. They are deadly serious in their monomaniacal determination to wring some higher significance out of pure coincidence.
Indeed, the central tenet of Dr. Matrix's system of belief is the denial of coincidence. "It is naive to suppose," he argues, "that there is such a thing as a randomly arranged group of symbols."
"Have you ever noticed," he asks Gardner and the reader, "the tendency of great political events to occur on strongly patterned dates? The bugles sounded cease-fire at the close of the First World War at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. The invasion of France by the Allies began at the sixth hour of the sixth day of the sixth month, 1944. Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin opened their famous Yalta meeting on Feb. 3, 1945, a date that has four digits in serial order when it is written 2-3-45."
Names and letters also have their unexpected burden of significance to Dr. Matrix's way of thinking. How could Norman Mailer's father, I.B. Mailer, fail to become an accountant, considering that he had the same initials as International Business Machines? Wasn't it inevitable that Edgar Allan Poe should take up poetry, considering what a final "it" did to his last name? And wasn't it to be expected that "a man named Dennis (SINNED, backward) was tortured by guilt feelings over his relationship with a Russian girl named Natasha (AH, SATAN, backward)"?
Martin Gardner, whose magazine columns on topics other than this mysterious Dr. Matrix have for many years exposed with great wit and charm the lunatic fringes of science, manages in this latest book to take a swipe at the occult fads that sometimes overtake otherwise intelligent people when they fall into such silliness as sitting in medium-sized pyramids to keep their minds sharp and keeping their razor blades in smaller ones for a more literal keenness.
The only problem with "The Magic Numbers of Dr. Matrix" is that it may well find readers who fail to notice Martin Gardner's tongue so prominently in his cheek and may come away impressed that one anagram for "ten commandments" is "can't mend most men." As someone has said, there's nothing so nonsensical that three people can't be persuaded of its truth in less than 60 seconds.
Dr. Matrix doesn't convince me. Not at all. But I did just notice that it's 5:55 p.m. on the fifth day of the fifth month of 1985 -- the year I just turned 50.