Three “experiments” (none really worthy of the term) come to mind.
One was a primary-school headteacher who attempted to illustrate size by painting a million dots on the playground tarmac. It had to be done by putting tens into blocks of hundreds, hundreds into thousands … The result was a surface suffering from acute, multi-coloured chickenpox, and achieving total incomprehensibility.
At the other end (and here I’m dredging my memory, so E&OE), Konrad Lorenz did a thing with ducks. He successively removed ducklings from the mother duck. The mother became distressed only when the last-but-two duckling was offed. Lorenz concluded that ducks count “One, two, many …”
The third was my own attempt to get students to appreciate the limits of their imaginations.
- “Close your eyes. Imagine — say a milk-bottle on the doorstep.” [Gosh! That dates me. When did one last see that domestic detail?]
- “Now put a second bottle down beside it. OK: everyone got a mental image?” Nods all round.
- “And a third. And a fourth …”
My own conceptualising ran out at seven. Then I had to “see” two rows of four … Either my persuasion was so good, or that’s about the natural limits. Very few students claimed to be able to produce a clear picture of more than seven.
Here’s another example of our intellect being betrayed by number.
The Greek word means “consumed by fire”. At some point it was transformed into mass-sacrifice, and therefore into its modern usage. That may date from Tyndale’s Bible of 1526:
… to love a mans neghbour as him silfe ys a greater thynge then all holocaustes and sacrifises. [Mark’s Gospel, 12.33]
Numbering the dead
I had a look back to President Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor speech. I wasn’t too surprised to notice the vagueness over the casualties (which hadn’t yet been properly assessed, of course):
The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.
That is about the sum of it.
Similarly, President Bush on the evening of 9/11, is far from crystal clear:
Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes or in their offices: secretaries, business men and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror.
“Thousands of lives”: at Pearl Harbor the count made later was:
The Navy and Marine Corps suffered a total of 2,896 casualties of which 2,117 were deaths (Navy 2,008, Marines 109) and 779 wounded (Navy 710, Marines 69). The Army (as of midnight, 10 December) lost 228 killed or died of wounds, 113 seriously wounded and 346 slightly wounded. In addition, at least 57 civilians were killed and nearly as many seriously injured.
The September 11 attacks resulted in 2,996 immediate (attack time) deaths: 2,977 victims and the 19 hijackers. A total of 372 people with non-U.S. citizenship (excluding the 19 perpetrators) perished in the attacks, representing just over 12% of the total. The immediate deaths include 246 victims on the four planes (from which there were no survivors), 2,606 in New York City in the World Trade Center and on the ground, and 125 at the Pentagon. About 292 people were killed at street level by burning debris and falling bodies of those who had jumped or fallen from the World Trade Center’s windows. All the deaths in the attacks were civilians except for 55 military personnel killed at the Pentagon. Some immediate victims were not added to the list until years later.
I seriously doubt that many of us carry cold statistics, like those, in our heads. We round the numbers at best, or focus on the odd one or two victims known to us.
So those 888,246 ceramic poppies I saw planted in the Tower of London moat come down to a single grave, my grandfather’s, at Doullens Communal Cemetery Ext No 2. The toll of the Second World War subjectively amounts to cousin Jean Chapman, among the other ATS girls of 121 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, taken out by a sneak bomber at the Imperial Hotel, Great Yarmouth, in 1943.
Je suis Charlie
What I’m attempting to do here is comprehend the upsurge of popular emotion over the Rue Nicolas Appert murders.
I do not believe it is for some abstract: the “Freedom” featured by the Times, the Telegraph and Daily Mail headline screamers:
Nor the even-more bizarre metaphor in The New York Times —
By comparison, and by far, the most effective, human, front page today was that “Up yours!” of the Independent:
It may also be the very name of the magazine: again, not an abstraction but a comfortable prénom.
Twelve, the number of the dead, is one of those iconic numbers, enough for a small circle of acquaintance. It is the complement of the minibus on the way to the football, the population of a typical office, the moment when an empty bar or café starts to feel it is filling up, when we look around and feel we may have chosen the right restaurant after all. It is an understandable, embraceable, personifiable group.