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October 2018

Crunching numbers at the dawn of history

Nury Vittachi

When it comes to lucky numbers, things don't seem to add up, says Hong Kong's humorist

Archeologists deciphered an ancient document from the dawn of history – and it turned out to be a maths test.

Translators were probably hoping that the 2,000-year-old Ahmes Papyrus would reveal the location of a great pile of priceless treasure – but instead it reads as if it was written by a tutor in high school accounting: “If I want to swap x loaves of bread, how many pints of beer can I get?”

Egyptians were proud of inventing bread and beer, and liked mentioning them a lot. In the same way, I guess Hong Kong maths tests should focus on local obsessions: “If I pay HK$5 million for a 350 square feet ‘apartment,’ is the price a) ridiculous, b) ludicrous, or c) insane?”

The papyrus writer, whose name has been translated as Moonborn the Scribe, is a bit of a cheerleader for accounting. In his text, he promises readers that getting a grip on numbers is the basis of “knowing all things, every obscure fact, and every secret there is.” That’s a bit of a stretch for an accounting textbook, but I guess he had sales targets like everyone else.

But poor old Moonborn had a problem. The Pharaohs didn’t care much about accurate numbers – they wanted lucky numbers. This is awkward, since the most important numbers in mathematics are not neat at all – pi is “three-ish” and the golden ratio is “one and half-ish.”

Yet, at least ancient numbers looked pretty – because they were written in hieroglyphics, which are little pictures.

Yeah yeah yeah, I know that Chinese characters are technically little pictures too, but until I see a flame that looks like my daughter doing the splits, I’ll stay sceptical on that one.

In ancient Egyptian, pictographs actually look like pictures – although they are a bit random. The number one is a picture of a papyrus leaf. Ten is a bent leaf. One hundred is a coiled rope. One thousand is a lotus flower. One hundred thousand is a tadpole. And one million is a picture of a scribe. (This is strong evidence that the scribes designed this system.)

“ Just like pharaoh in the old days, some people today care more about numbers being lucky than being accurate.”

I really think we should bring this system back just to liven up our annual reports. “Revenues were down by one coiled rope and a couple of leaves, but profits rose by two snakes and a lotus flower.” So much more elegant than using crass numbers, right?

Moonborn’s text is two millennia old, yet nothing much has changed – except now we no longer feel that we have to add things up to get lucky numbers.

Or do we? A sub-editor colleague, Wyng Chow, reminded me of a building in Hong Kong that offered its top floor, level 88, for sale – even though the building was only 42 stories high. Just like pharaoh in the old days, some people today care more about numbers being lucky than being accurate.

Still, this reminds us that human beings were no less intelligent all those millennia ago. The first toilets, invented in the Indus Valley 5,000 years ago, sent stuff straight to a place where it was recycled as fertilizer, so they were often way ahead of modern people.

The bad news is that toilet paper was not invented until AD 105 in China.

This means that there is a smaller gap of time between the life of King Solomon and the invention of the iPhone than there was between the invention of toilets and the invention of toilet paper.

Which is pretty scary. Especially if you are waiting with your hand stretched around the toilet door for 3,105 years.

The main message here is that if you are revising for an accounting test, take heart from the fact that people have been suffering similar tests since the dawn of history.

And if you are ever asked to define the number known as pi – the answer is “three-ish.” 

Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices