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The “power pose” of the 6th century B.C.

From Selected Topics in the History of Mathematics by Aaron Strauss (1973):

Today Pythagoras is known predominantly as a mathematician. However, in his own day and age (which was also the day and age of Buddha, Lao-Tsa, and Confucious), he was looked upon as the personification of the highest divine wisdom by his followers to whom he preached the immortality of the soul. The whole lot of them were often ridiculed by ancient Greek society as being superstitious, filthy vegetarians. . . .

Pythagorean number theory was closely related to number mysticism. Odd numbers were male while even numbers were female. (Shakespeare: “there is divinity in odd numbers”). Individual integers had their own unique properties:

   1    generator and number of reason
   2    1st female number – number of opinion
   3    1st male number – number of harmony, being composed of unity and diversity
   4    number of justice or retribution (square of accounts)
   5    number of marriage, being composed of the first male and female numbers
   6    number of creation
   7    signified the 7 planets and 7 days in a week
   10    holiest number of all composed of 1+2+3+4 which determine a point, a line, and space respectively (later it was discovered that 10 is the smallest integer n for which there exist as many primes and nonprimes between 1 and n)
   17    the most despised and horrible of all numbers

The rectangles with dimensions 4 x 4 and 3 x 6 are interesting in that the former has area and perimeter equal to 16 and the latter has area and perimeter equal to 18. Possibly 17’s horror was kept under control by being surrounded by 16 and 18.

The whole book (actually comb-bound lecture notes) is great. It’s too bad Strauss died so young. I pulled it off the shelf to check my memory following this blog discussion. Indeed I’d been confused. I’d remembered 4 being the number of justice and 17 being the evil number, so I just assumed that the Pythagoreans viewed even numbers as male and odd numbers as female.

Just imagine what these ancient Greeks would’ve been able to do, had they been given the modern tools of statistical significance. I can see it now:

Pythagoras et al. (-520). Are numbers gendered? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol. -2390, pp. 31-36.


  1. Paul Alper says:

    Never mind the gender and all that philosophy stuff, much more relevant today is the belief in

    “666 is the sum of the first 36 natural numbers (i.e. 1 + 2 + 3+ … + 34 + 35 + 36 = 666), and thus it is a triangular number. Notice that 36 = 15 + 21; 15 and 21 are also triangular numbers; and 152 + 212 = 225 + 441 = 666.”

    Presumably neither Bayesians nor frequentists regularly listen to right-wing radio but if they did, they would learn that the 666 person is either here already or just about to make her entrance.

  2. Baruch says:

    Lovely but Professor Gelman it may be time to begin reading some psychological research that you think *is* serious.

    • Andrew says:


      I talk about serious psychology research all the time. Psychology is important, that’s why it annoys me so much when the junk stuff is what gets promoted in newspapers, radio, Ted talks, Gladwell, etc etc etc. Don’t blame me for all the publicity given to himmicanes, power pose, embodied cognition, and all the rest.

      • Rahul says:

        But seriously, what are the big ideas in Psych from the last decade?

        • Baruch says:

          not sure about “ideas” — ill be satisfied with”findings”. lets see, i think something can be said about the notion and data of strategic automaticity (even when filtering out all failed replications, including mine); work done on the cognitive processes underlying (and the nature of) visual awareness (e.g., its relationship to metacognition; the growing understanding of emotional responses; of motivation (e.g., separation between the hedonic and ‘wanting’ aspect). there are some advances i think. i think a bit more time is needed for better evaluating what has been a breakthrough (or even what stuck) and what was merely noise. what do you say?

      • Baruch says:

        Believe me — i suffer more from that (comparison wise). I get your point I am not sure that everyone does though. See comment below.

  3. Mark Palko says:

    We’ve been over this before. Pythagoras (not his real name) didn’t live in 6th Century B.C. — there was no 6th Century B.C. Have you learned nothing from Kasparov?

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