Front-page news

It is not often that mathematics is front-page news. It happened nine years ago last week. Even more unusually, the mathematics involved was utterly trivial, and it was attributed to me.

A journalist phoned me to ask me about the time and date 20:02, 20/02/2002. Had this pattern (a palindrome composed of three identical palindromes) happened before, and would it happen again? I worked out the answer on the spot and told him; so I was prepared when a second journalist phoned with more-or-less the same question. This journalist was from the Daily Telegraph, and wrote a piece illustrated with a picture of a baby born in the magic minute, the digits visible on its plastic tag. It happened that a major scandal about hospitals broke that day, and this piece got promoted to the front page to follow the story.

I suppose that people were sensitised to interesting dates since this was soon after the damp squib that was the “millennium“. That event, as well as being celebrated at the wrong time (since firstly the monk who devised our calendar got the date of Jesus’ birth wrong, and secondly he didn’t understand zero), was devalued by being so culture-dependent. In any case, had humans had a different number of fingers on each hand, the “interesting” date would have been a very different number.

The palindromic date is silly for these reasons and others: the crazy distribution of month lengths in our calendar; the strange conventions for dividing a day into hours and minutes (perhaps coming in part from the Babylonians’ sexagesimal number system); and even the order in which the components are put together. There is some logic to the British day/month/year as opposed to the American month/day/year, but to precede it by hour:minute makes no sense. The most sensible would be year/month/day, hour:minute, but then the pattern would be lost.

Of course, the real answer to the journalist’s question was that last time this happened times were not kept so accurately, and next time civilisation may well have broken down (or at least a different dating system may be in use).

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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3 Responses to Front-page news

  1. I remember this incident clearly–the mystic date happened to be the first day I ever met Peter (at a postgraduate open day at QMUL), and I happened across the story in the Evening Standard on the train home. He’s been omnipresent ever since…..

  2. Ross Templeman says:

    Yes this whole date business does cause a disturbing amount of confusion sometimes.

    I once had a temporary contract at a certain university. My job was to process applications for a certain discount card. For some reason a worryingly high number of students managed to state an incorrect date of birth on their application form. One even stated that their course started in the year 2110 but ended in 2013… oh dear.

    For what it is worth I do not recall any mathematics students making such an error. Though quite a few were law students….the mind boggles.

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