Written in 2013.

I loathed numbers.  The absolutism—the nerve!

“Why number at all?” say I.

No one ever understood something through numbers. Does knowing there are seven thingamabobs tell you anything about the thingamabob itself? The very idea of numbers: who came up with it? Greeks? Arabs? Renaissane-cy men? I wanted to do away with numbers entirely.

But frankly, I couldn’t think of a better way to go about…you know, measuring stuff, describing the world…but surely someone had. So when I heard about the inaugural meeting of the International League Against Numbers, I registered immediately, hoping to resolve the number problem.

I arrived just after dawn.  A river of escalators whisked me to the registration desk, where after I was channeled to Ballroom C, to the poster session titled “Beyond Numbers.”

My eyes darted expectantly about the ballroom. Rows of posters filed before me, each teeming with vibrant figures and symbols.  The entire absence of Arabic or Roman numerals nearly brought a tear to my eye. Had they achieved numberlessness?

Name-tagged registrants flanked their posters. One such presenter, a young man in a crisp British suit and Italian shoes, waved his hands in debate, staring down his colleague with pursed lips.  His hair was parted on the left.

His colleague—with a deceivingly laid back California skinny tie, comb over from the right—was not to be outdone. His eyebrows stretched towards the ceiling, as if trying to reach above the presenter’s ignorance. The argument: “But Sir, excuse me—SIR! Yours is simply a variation of the Mayan vigesimal system—closer to the French than to novelty.  New characters do NOT mean new system. You sir, are trying to pour new wine from old wineskins. Imposter!”

At this unveiled insult, the volley escalated. “Ignoramus!” was rebutted with “Numerator!”  Wondering why they were so worked up, I moved on, hoping to find more moderate presenters.

A curious bee-shaped poster caught my eye. “Bees are the future,” exclaimed a man whose black and yellow striped bolo tie tails bounced as he spoke. Part down the middle. “Years of combing through hives of data have led me to this one stinging conclusion: we can count on bees.”

Bewildered, I asked, “You mean bees use numbers?”

“Of course not! They don’t bother with them.  For they have… dance!” he said with a dramatic, sweeping gesture. Was he about to take flight?  “They buzz directions, quantity, quality—everything through simple, sublime dance.”

His poster proved equally intriguing; each figure interpreted a specific bee dance: “This one means there are many flowers just across the meadow to the left.  That one means there is a lovely tree in full blossom just a moment’s flight behind the old oak.  Isn’t it bumbling bee-liant?”

“Hmm,” I mustered with a serious nod, a seemingly appropriate votive to his terrible pun.

I surveyed the room. One poster had figures of crickets and bars of music. Another, winner of that year’s Young Investigator award, explained the mating coos of a very particular kind of domestic pigeon.

Off in the corner, a few rows back, stood a young woman.  Can I describe her? Her thistle of red hair crowned a skinny-jeaned French frame that tapered to dramatic, leopard-print thorns. Her arms: folded. She had no part. Unsure why she was unnoticed by the crowd, I circled cautiously, picking up a bottle of water in my approach pattern.

She stared at the ceiling, transfixed, as if trying to count the lights.  Her left hand held an e-cig that hissed at her command.  Oblivious to my presence, I skimmed her poster.

“Neurons count, you say?” I made conversation.

“If you count, then your neurons count.  How else could you count?” emerged her reply through a cloud of smokeless smoke.

“And they use numbers?” I asked, shifting my weight, realizing her solitude was self-enforced.

“Neurons are numberless. Neurons have firing rates, controlled by voltages, controlled by channels and proteins, controlled by genes, controlled by usage. At least as far as we know.” She sighed, bored. Hiss. “Neurons don’t use numbers but you can train your neurons to work together that way.”

“So what’s ‘Beyond Numbers’ about this, then? Sounds like you’re saying numbers are important but not.” I retorted with damp palms.

“Look at these carefully,” she said, pointing to two pictures that looked like the gray and white noise from an unconnected TV…except buried in the noise, one had a swirl and the other had a star.

Realizing I had seen the shapes, she continued, “There isn’t a pattern recognition algorithm in existence that can ‘see’ the swirl or star. But your neurons did it in less than 3 seconds, and they did it without numbers.” Pointing her e-cig at me, “You are beyond numbers.”

“If neurons are beyond numbers, then why do we still use numbers? Why can’t we just think like neurons?” I said, pursing my lips as I had seen earlier.

“We would first have to understand how neurons work. No one argues, ‘I think therefore I understand neurons,’” she said with unrepressed laughter. “Perhaps a better question is why people use numbers to study neurons when neurons don’t use numbers. Hiss. But of course, the answer is habit.”

“Circular!” my exclamation startled me.  “Ahem. Circular. If we developed numbers, this must say something about how neurons work, for what but neurons would have developed numbers?”

“Clever.” Hiss. She leaned towards me slowly and said, “Counterpoint: we also developed English. Do you argue neurons speak English?”

Addled, I rubbed from my upper nose to my cheekbones. Thistle indeed.

“‘Beyond numbers,’” she rehearsed, opening her long, delicate fingers towards me as if sweeping her words my direction. “That a system beyond numbers exists is certain, as you so kindly demonstrated. That we can leave our fingers and toes to discover it is less certain. Alas.” Hissssss. Her eyes returned to the lights.

Dismissed, I collected a boxed lunch and counted my losses.

About author / Daniel

I was born in Dallas and spent my childhood scampering through the countrysides of central and eastern Texas, with brief escapades in Maryland and Utah. I began medical school in San Antonio, where I met my wife and future psych co-resident Kristin Budde. After my PhD, we moved together to New Haven, where I finished med school. I enjoy writing about neuroscience as a way to think through some of the problems that come up in clinic. I spend a great chunk of my time thinking about and researching how to develop useful biomarkers of brain disease. When I'm not at the hospital or working on research stuff, I'll be fixing up my 1920s New England house. I just recently refinished an old Blue Jay sailboat, which was a great new dad project (sanding is a good activity when you're sleep deprived).

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