Birthday Math

June 5, 2011

Today is my thirty-fifth birthday. As a rule, I don’t worry about aging because I believe numerical age is arbitrary. It’s derived from the widely-used decimal, or ‘base-10’ system, so multiples of ten – 20, 30, 40, – seem significant. Were we using any other form of measurement, this would not be the case.

The Aztecs, for example used a base-12 system, so a 30th birthday would be no big deal.  But turning 36 might have made an Aztec feel his age. If he hadn’t been slain by Europeans or sacrificed for playing on the losing team during an Intra-kingdom basketball tournament, a 36 year-old Aztec would be considered an old man. He’d be dreading his yearly physical: “Hmmm,” the Aztec doctor would mutter, looking at the X-Ray, “that heart better come out. Lay down on the altar while I scrub up.”

Computers use the hexadecimal, or base-16 system, so 16 is a milestone in a computer’s life. Ironic, since Moore’s law renders most computers obsolete long before then. Maybe that explains the angst of HAL and Skynet and all the other computers bent on destroying mankind: they’re the technological equivalent of grumpy old men.

Humans count the lives of dogs in increments of 7, which is kind of unfair to your dog when it comes to his birthdays. One day he’s 14, the next day he’s 21. Not only have his teen years have completely passed you by, but now he’s eligible to be drafted. Cicadas are even worse off – they appear every 17 years.  A cicada’s 17th birthday is followed by his 34th, and then by his 51st. Because of this, cicadas are notoriously unfashionable: they show up to birthday parties dressed in the garb of 17, 34 and 51 years ago. You see a lot of denim overalls, bell bottoms and pillbox hats at cicada birthday parties.

If you’re really terrified of aging, you may chose to follow the example of Princeton mathematician John Nash. He proposed a base-26 system in which numbers corresponded to the 26-letter Latin alphabet. So your 16th birthday would be your Pth, your 20th your Tth, etc. When you turn 27, you simply start again at AA. Be warned, however: adopt this system and you could conceivably be invited to a 76 year-old woman’s XXX birthday party.

And what of entities beyond the lifespan and ken of mere humans? Could there not be a breed of mortal yet exceedingly long-lived godlike beings somewhere in the universe? Beings who measure their lives not in years, but in aeons? When do they start to feel the pinch of old age? Do they ever wake up in the heart of the sun where they dwell one day and mutter “I can’t believe I’m 1023 years old already. I haven’t devoured half the worlds I thought I would.” More to the point, have you ever tried to buy 1023 birthday candles? It’s damn near impossible, even if you write to the manufacturer.

In the end, though, the only real safeguard against feeling old is a general lack of knowledge about numbers. I failed math three times in high school (or was it two? which is more?), and become less interested in it with every passing day. For me, ignorance is not only bliss, it’s eternal youth, too.

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