Last Wednesday (the 20th) I was at the Rangers baseball game where “Slamming” Sammy Sosa hit his 600th home run.
That was cool, I admit, but the very idea of celebrating the 600th occurance of something makes me think about the fact that the 600th occurance of something is only worth celebrating because we happen to use a counting system based on the number 10. If we had evolved with 3 fingers and a thumb instead of 4, we would have celebrated his 512th home run (though we would have called it home run number 1000), his 576th (=1100th), and, if he gets it, his 640th (=1200th).
And even given that we evolved the way we did, there’s no need for us to use base ten. The Babylonians used base twelve. (Incidentally, Tolkien’s Numenoreans did so as well.) And we could have counted base six on our hands just as easily as we do base ten. Use one hand for the ones digit and the other for the tens (well, sixes) digit, and you can count up to 100 in base six (36 in base 10). That seems to me considerably more efficient than using base ten, where you can only get up to 10 (that would be 14 in base six) on your hands. If you couldn’t tell, I’m partial to base six. Count with me now – one, two, three, four, five, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, twenty… fifty-four, fifty-five, one hundred!
My basic point is that the number ten has absolutely no significance. We use it only because we happen to have ten fingers and happen to have decided to count on our hands in one particular way (and not a particularly good way). It is absolutely meaningless when it comes to actual mathematics.
Yet we cannot escape from it, because we were brought up to count base ten, and it is very hard to change that habit. I don’t have any proposal to change that; and it isn’t like switching to a different base would really fix anything. But we could at least stop emphasizing in our culture the significance of insignificant things, by stopping this inane celebration of events that are only meaningful because they are divisible by the number 10 or some multiple thereof.
So some part of me wants to say – do not celebrate Sammy Sosa’s 600th home run. It is no greater an achievement than his 599th, or his 598th, or his 601st which he hit last night. We shouldn’t be comparing ballplayers against meaningless standards like 500 or 600 home runs, or 5000 strikeouts, or 300 wins, or 3000 hits. We should be comparing them against each other. Much more interesting than Sammy hitting 600 would be Barry Bonds passing Hank Aaron with 756. Celebrate (or boo, as I will) that as much as you want.