‘Why Numbers Exist’ by Stephen Downes

Stephen Downes wrote to me:

As I was summarizing Chapter 11 my mind went back over and over to my recent poem ‘Why Numbers Exist’, which captures exactly the sense of mystery and meaning in numbers McLuhan was describing. Please feel free to share it with the group as part of my contribution.

I think it is a delightful poem, so here goes…


Why Numbers Exist

by Stephen Downes

One exists to show us the way
It is the self, it is today
It is the place where we departed
It is the one to get us started

Two exists to join me to you
It is the pair, it is the glue
It is the way we start out with math
It is the choice, the fork in the path

Three exists to give us hope
It is the plan, the way we cope
Three keeps us level looking ahead
It is the rumple left in the bed

Four exists to even the score
Strong and square, the table, the door
It is the meal we share to stay strong
The hammer we wield to right the wrong

Five exists to lead us beyond
To see the night before it dawned
Five is the spirit, the star, the cult
The hand of man, the final result

Six exists to show us the road
It is the balance in the load
Calmness and reason, power of sight
It is the way, the path and the light

Seven exists to hand out fate
It is the luck we all await
It is the random we see in chance
It is the change we make in the dance

Eight exists to give us our due
It is reward, it is the new
It is good fortune reaped from the land
It is the harvest we always planned

Nine exists to be the best
Of mice and men and all the rest
A sense of spirit and justice combined
The steel we forge from iron refined

Ten exists to give us measure
Ways to add and count our treasure
To understand that our greatest worth
Is what we were given at our birth

Eleven exists to imply
A wink, a smile, a batted eye
It reminds us that we need to smile
To take a break and laugh a while

Twelve exists to top the hour
To mark the months our lives devour
And on the days our lives seem hollow
To keep our minds on those who follow

Thirteen exists as a warning
Lest we spend our lives in mourning
A baker’s dozen may feel quite nice
But excess always comes with a price

The other numbers are combined
With proportion in each assigned
A more complex universe begun
By weight of the factors barring none

The primes exist to keep us true
For there’s always something new
The are like nature’s memorandum
To keep an eye out for the random

Zero does not exist at all
We made it so that we recall
That though it all may seem so stringent
It really just is quite contingent


I just want to thank Stephen for his contribution to this group as I do see it as him working on fulfilling his personal vision statement:

I want and visualize and aspire toward a system of society and learning where each person is able to rise to his or her fullest potential without social or financial encumberance, where they may express themselves fully and without reservation through art, writing, athletics, invention, or even through their avocations or lifestyle.

Where they are able to form networks of meaningful and rewarding relationships with their peers, with people who share the same interests or hobbies, the same political or religious affiliations – or different interests or affiliations, as the case may be.

This to me is a society where knowledge and learning are public goods, freely created and shared, not hoarded or withheld in order to extract wealth or influence. This is what I aspire toward, this is what I work toward.

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