The Magic Number: 37

Regular readers of this blog will have worked out by now that I’m essentially a rationalist. I approach the world using logic and reason, checking of facts (as far as it’s practicable), updating my views in the light of new information. I’ve no time for superstition, religious or otherwise, in forming my views of the world around me. Or so I say.

So, just for a change, let’s put that all to one side for the moment. Let’s talk about magic. Or, more specifically, magic numbers, and one magic number in particular.

Magic Numbers in History

Over the whole of recorded history, and probably before, numbers have held mystical powers for people. The most mystical number to the Pythagoreans was the number 10. Pythagoras (580 – 500 BCE) himself thought numbers had souls and magic powers.

The most magical numbers in religion are three, four, seven, ten and twelve.

In Christianity, we have the Holy Trinity, Jesus rising after three days, the latter borrowed from pagan moon-worshippers. (Have you ever wondered why Easter wanders all over the calendar: the phases of the moon are the answer.) We have four Gospels and four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The creation myth (also in Islam and Judaism) famously uses the number seven: hence the days of the week. Then we have the Ten Commandments and Twelve Apostles.

The hajj in Islam requires pilgrims to walk seven times around the Kabaa (a pre-existing pagan ritual adopted by early Muslims). And there are many examples in other faiths. In fairy tales, we have three wishes and seven dwarves, to name just a couple of examples. An interesting overview is available on the Mystical Numbers website.

number 37 repeated
It’s magic!

But I want to concentrate on a different number from all these. There’s a spoiler alert already in the title: it’s the number thirty seven.

2010 General Election

Most people know by now that, in 2010, David Cameron won a small majority of 12 in the Commons on 37% of the votes cast. Ever since the 1950s, winning parties in UK general elections have never commanded more than 50% of the vote. I think the lowest figure for majority rule was by Tony Blair’s New Labour in 2005. An attempt at a fairer electoral system, a favourite of the Lib Dems was, of course, scuppered by Cameron and co during the coalition government 2010-15.

EU Referendum

The magic number 37 crops up again in the EU referendum result. This can be summarized as follows:

37% Leave
34% Remain
29% Did not vote

One of the key requirements of government in a democracy is to defend minorities from “the tyranny of the majority”. May’s government seems to be doing a piss poor job of this right now, against the hysteria of the usual media suspects in particular.

UK Economy

As my earlier blog post Two Gamblers and a Pint of Lager explained, our magic number makes its appearance in one stark view of how lopsided the UK economy is. In round terms, the UK has:

1% of the world’s population
2.5% of the world’s income
37% of the world’s financial transactions.

Financial institutions around the world trade sums equal to the entire global annual output every 14 working days. In the UK, we trade our annual output every day and a quarter! I explained in my post The City: Paragon or Parasite? that this kind of trading is “socially useless”. (The then chairman of the Financial Services Authority used this phrase in 2009.) It’s a major source of financial instability and will inevitably lead to another large 2007-8 style crash one day. It leaves the UK uniquely vulnerable of the western democracies to an economic shock such as Britain leaving the EU or Donald Trump as President of the USA.

US Elections

Talking of which, I did analyse the US election result to see if our magic number 37 dropped out of the voting statistics. Sadly, it didn’t. But I did learn that the voters of America split as follows:

42% did not vote
28% voted for Clinton
27% voted for Trump
3% voted for other candidates

Hillary Clinton leads Trump by 2 million votes in the count. In the whole history of US presidential elections, five winning US Presidents have lost the popular vote, Trump by the third largest margin ever. (There were larger margins in 1824 and 1876.) Perhaps more shocking is that fact that Trump is not unusual in becoming President-elect with the endorsement of only about a quarter of voters.

So, no 37 here. But hang on… the share of the American voters who did not vote for Trump is (almost) exactly double the share of British voters (37%) who voted to leave the EU. Or, if you add the percentage of the UKIP vote in 2015 (10) to the percentage of Americans who supported Trump in 2016 (27), you get, yes, (hurrah!) our magic number 37.  Phew!

OK, the more observant of you (which is, of course, all of you!) will have spotted what I’ve just done here. I’ve scratched around and selected some arbitrary “facts” from a greater whole until I’ve got the answer I want.* Which is basically what evangelical religious apologists do when they’re trying to “prove” the will of God or Allah behind some natural phenomenon. Tsunamis, for example, being God’s wrath – that sort of thing.

And Finally

But here’s just one thing more I’ve remembered. What’s the body temperature of a normal, healthy human being? Why, yes! It’s 37 degrees! Spooky, or what? (What, probably…)

*and mixed “percentage of votes” with “percentage of electorate”.


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