August 08, 2005

8th of the 8th

1993: Massive quake hit Latur, killing thousands. Immediately, astrologers came crawling from their burrows to tell us about this sequence of disasters that had struck the country every nine years:

  • 1948: Mahatma Gandhi assassinated.
  • 1957: Dr Ambedkar died.
  • 1966: Indira became Prime Minister.
  • 1975: Indira declared the Emergency.
  • 1984: Indira died.
  • 1993: Latur earthquake.

The clincher? Add up the digits in each of these years. You get 22 every time! 22, the sage men pronounced, was India's unlucky number.

So why 22? What does 22 have to do with disasters in India?

Short answer: nothing. Long answer: nothing.

Here's one thing those post-quake astrologers didn't say. You take any two numbers that differ by nine and add their digits, you'll get the same total. Or if not, add the digits of the resulting number and so on, till you get a single digit total (above, 4 -- which is 2 + 2). This single digit is the digital root of the number; and numbers that differ by nine have the same digital root.

Seems startling? Really, it isn't. If we had eight fingers and not 10, and thus an octal rather than our decimal system, the same property would have held for 7, not 9. If we had 37 fingers, the same thing would have happened with 36. Though I'll say this, I'm glad I don't have 37 fingers.

Nor do astrologers, actually. Even so, you should pay no attention to their claims about years adding up to 22.

"OK, I got that", you think, "but why these major disasters every 9 years?"

Ah, now that's something else the astrologers were silent about, but are adept at: finding real world happenings to fit their fantasies. In any given year, there are bound to be at least a few major disasters or tragedies or deaths of major figures. Try it for yourself. 1962? War with China. 1967? Koyna earthquake. 1997? Diana dies. 2002? Gujarat drowns in blood. 2004? Tsunami.

See? It's easy. If you have a sequence of years, it's certain that there was some disaster, likely several, in each. And this is why you have the numerologists now pronouncing that 26 -- or 8 -- is our unlucky number: after all, the Kutch quake, the tsunami and the Bombay deluge all happened on the 26th of the month. And that, they say, was foretold at our very birth: 15-8-1947 itself has a digital root of 8!

Naturally you must forget that after Latur, it was 22, or 4, that was unlucky.

So let's not get fooled by our astrologer pals who claim one number or another is bad for us. But let's give them credit for recognizing and playing on something we all like: finding patterns. There is something strangely comforting about discovering patterns in the daily randomness of events. It's a thumb to suck, something to hold on to. Even if we can do nothing about it, it gives us some little peace to be told that in 2014, 9 years from now, we can expect a disaster. (For that matter, in 2013, 8 years from now).

Never mind that such a prediction is akin to predicting sunrise tomorrow.

But here's something else to chew on: randomness implies patterns. If you tossed a coin 20 times, for example, what would you think were the odds of at least one sequence of four heads or four tails in a row? The answer, surprising to most of us, is that such a sequence is ... nearly certain. And yet, even after reading this here, you will be astonished when you do toss those four heads or four tails in a row. (Try it). And four-in-a-row is only one kind of pattern. In just those 20 tosses, any of us would find many others.

Finding patterns amidst chaos is all very well. But when astrologers start using those patterns to talk about "unlucky" days, and doomsday stuff, that's when we should call their bluff. Because that's when mumbo-jumbo has taken over from reason.

Raymond Smullyan, eminent logician, was once asked why he didn't believe in astrology. "I'm a Gemini", he said, "and Geminis never believe in astrology."

The year was 1966. Smullyan was 22 years old.

OK, so it wasn't 1966. He wasn't 22 either. But damn, today's the 8th! Of the 8th month!


Rabin said...

Good stuff!!

Anand said...

Indira becoming PM, her declating the emergency, and her death, all were disasters for these guys, eh?!

Iyer the Great said...

Dilip... nice post. In this post of mine, I refer to an column in the Scientific American that is on a similar topic - anecdotal thinking vs Science. It may interest you.

Aswin said...

Deccan Chronicle(chennai) carried "Astrologers assure that there is no effect due to 10th planet" on the first page!
I have a post on Astrology here

Anshul said...

Interesting reading!
Kindly visit my blog
and I would appreciate your comments!!!

Sunil said...

Hmmmm.....I've tried to explain this kind of thing often, but haven't convinced anyone. Perhaps I should just keep a printout of this post in my pocket for emergency situations.....

Anonymous said...

long ago, when calendars were being made the learned were contemplating on having 14 months. An young astrologer realized Doomsday occuring on the 13th of the 13th Month was going to very very hard, and astrologers would be out of business. so now we have 12 months a year.

arZan said...

Great post.

U could have a parallel know...Swami D' in Kundli, Mandli, and everything in between ! :)

Anyways, interesting reading.

Vikram A. said...


I have emailed this to all my astrology obsessed uncles. They'll probably come back to me with some nonsense like, "Dilip D'Souza has 11 letters in his name, 11 is one-half of 22. Dilip D'Souza is a one-half unlucky fellow."

Some people you just can't change.


Sriram said...

Interesting comments, Dilip. I wonder if have read any of the delightful books by John Allen Paulos. He is a mathematician who writes math-oriented books for everyone to enjoy. Some of the titles include "Innumeracy", "A mathematician reads the newspaper" and "Once upon a number".

In these books, he points out many of the common fallacies that people subscribe to. For example, in baseball, where a single season has 162 games, commentators often talk about how some hitter is "hot" or struggling at any given point of time. The truth is, just like the coin in your analogy, they are just averaging out.

Consider a .250 hitter (he gets a hit every four chances). Then, over 162 games (each with many chances to bat), he will have streaks of success and failure. However, due to innumeracy, people fail to recognize this.

Math is deceptively easy.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Dilip
Very good post.
I think that there is a natural tendency in people to find patterns and sometimes we fit random data into patterns - sort of like looking at the clouds and seeing pictures. Here is an article that show the many connections between the assasination of two popular U.S. presidents: Lincoln and Kennedy. Of course it is just coincidence, but once you organize random data into a pattern by careful picking a choosing, people will be convinced that the pattern is not random.

Sizzlingtree said...

I was born on the 17th of February at 5:30 in the evening. See the pattern there? 8? All through my life I was told by astrologers and numerologists that my date of birth and time of birth were unlucky because 8 is the 'number of fate'. That tends to have such a powerful psychological influence. I decided that was that last year when I was told to change my name. I have had enough of people telling me I was born on the wrong date or at the wrong time. I hae adopted the Buddha's philosophy- all dates and times are good. It is the person that matters.

blokes said...

meaning is created by the mind whose definitions about things is dynamic. for a mind to 1st infer the presence of an object, there needs to be a subject to percieve. then it becomes soooo subjective. So where does all that get us?! so can there be an inference of meaning that is constant?

Charu said...

Sri Sri D'Souza, you have taken the Art Of Pattern-finding to great heights...

Suhail said...

d = 4th char of alphabet
dcubed = 4 cubed = 64
64 = 8 square = 8 of 8

~Observer of Small Things :)

Anirudh said...

Not a bad piece of writing, but you're pointing out something that most of us already know. It is quite obvious how astrologers use real world happenings to their convenience.

phucker said...

Sorry sir, you just can't prevent people from believing. On being told that the discovery of a tenth planet just goes to show what a load crap Astrology is, I was told - "But don't you see! This is why all of the astrology predictions have been going slightly off! They forgot to take into the 10th Planet into account! Now the predictions will be more accurate!".


Maybe GWB should have taken the 10th planet into account when forecasting the number of WMDs he was going to find in Iraq....

k said...

Why's Dilip D'Souza dcubed and not dsquared?

Vulturo said...


Quite a few people (me included) do seem to believe that Mahatma Gandhi's and Indira Gandhi's Assasinations were actually *blessings*, rather than disasters

Vulturo said...

Because (I think) his middle name also starts with D

However, only Dilip can confirm that

Josephine said...

Hey Dilip wonderful post, and you know what - The No.8 or 4 has been unlucky and lucky for me. I was born on 8th Dec. My house No. is 4, my cabin No. is 4, my extension No. is 4, my bank accounts adds to 4 my name adds to have had the worst 15 years of my what does it all mean?