Professor Joe Goldblatt
“Would you like to meet the King of Tonga?” The questioner was the son of a middle eastern billionaire who wished to celebrate New Years eve in 2000 with 10,000 of his closest friends and paying customers. As a research professor in the field of events management, I had taken a call from the son of one of the world’s richest men asking me if I could produce some research evidence confirming that Tonga would be the ideal place to welcome the new Millennium because there would be huge demand for tourists to visit this tiny Island in the South Pacific.
Following my telephone call and subsequent face to face meeting I was invited to meet His Majesty the King of Tonga in his summer palace in San Francisco, California. Upon arriving at the huge gates protecting his palace, our stretch limousine slowly crawled up the long drive until we were welcomed by a young woman wearing a sarong who was standing upon the gigantic porch of the opulent palace.
We were escorted into a waiting room and offered tea or coffee and told that His Majesty would soon receive us. A few minutes later two huge doors slid open and at the far end of another adjoining long room sat a very large man upon a golden throne chair. At his feet there were several young women sitting upon cushions. For a moment I thought I had been magically transformed into the musical entitled “The King and I” which was also set in the south pacific island of Thailand.
His Majesty gestured for me to come and sit beside his throne. A chair was placed upon his platform and I took my place. I imagined he would ask me questions about our proposal to bring two giant cruise ships to Tonga with thousands of paying customers to celebrate New Years in the first place upon planet earth where the sun would rise on this auspicious date.
To my surprise he did not ask me any questions about our plan, instead he smiled slyly and asked me “Professor, do you know where numbers come from?” I replied by suggesting that it was my understanding that the Egyptians were responsible for the first use of numbers. The King clapped his huge hands loudly and commanded his servants to bring him a pad of paper and a pencil. As the young woman scurried off to collect pencil and paper, the King turned to me and said that the first numbers were written upon the beaches of Tonga. He told me in a soft but firm voice that numbers were an invention of the Tonganese people because they practiced their numbers over and over again and they are in fact endless and infinite. When he received his paper and pencil he drew a sketch of a beach in Tonga and then made some cryptic symbols that appeared to be algebraic numbers. I simply nodded my head in agreement as I feared that any disagreement might result in me losing my head in San Francisco!
Upon my departure I walked through the airport and ran into the President of my University. We shook hands and he asked “What brings you to San Francisco?” I explained that I was having a meeting with the King of Tonga. The President looked at me quizically and then said with a chuckle “Oh yea, well, I just had a meeting with the Queen of Sheba!” I still wonder if he realised that I had actually been in the royal presence of the King of Tonga.
Upon further investigation I learned two things. First, it was not realistic to host a New Year’s event for wealthy people in Tonga because there was very little demand as most folk wanted to spend New Year’s at home with their loved ones. Secondly, I learned that indeed the first use of numbers for counting in recorded history was in Mesopotamia and later Egypt, however, the actual first use of numbers is not known as the use of numbers are generally believed by scientists and historians to stretch back over 50,000 years. Sorry your Majesty, although Tonga may not not have actually invented numbers, your ancestors may have indeed helped advance them in some way through repetition upon their ancient beautiful beaches.
The magic of numbers, as the King enthusiastically explained to me late that evening in his summer palace, has taken on a new power in recent years. Each evening the television news broadcasts report the latest pandemic infection, hospitalisation figures, the latest number of days required for isolation, the latest impact on the Scottish economy, the latest tens of millions of pounds provided by Scottish Government to help business sectors and so many more numbers that I have, along with others, become quite dizzy as we seem to be caught up in a whirling hurricane of numbers.
In addition to the sad news of the increasing numbers associated with the pandemic, I learned today that 85,000 men in the United States are suing the Boy Scouts of America for abuse when they were young men. It is well known by law enforcement officials that the majority of persons, both men and women, who are abused do not report this to the police or other agencies, therefore the number 85,000 may be many times greater. Regardless, it is a breathtaking number to consider and may result in a financial settlement for the victims of over two billion U.S. dollars.
As we try to remain calm in the eye of this numerical storm, I remember that at the same time the King of Tonga came calling that I was also scheduled to meet with the Vice President for Research at my University. My supervisor told me it was important to impress her, however, I should not quote any numbers such as enrollment, turnover, projected income, etc. He said “Numbers have a magic of their own. The minute you quote a number she will use it to encourage you to increase the number by telling your competitors how well we are doing.”
As we welcome a new number, 2022, I think it is important to respect numbers and also keep them in perspective. There are some numbers that we may try and manage such as our weight, our bank account and even our home address. However, all other numbers should be considered distant cousins. I have one of these distant cousins coming to visit this year as I turn seventy years of age. Like many of my generation, thanks to good health, most days I behave like a twelve year old as I greet each day with curiosity, frivolity and wonder. Yesterday, for example, I decided to risk life and limb by sliding down the fifteen metre high slide at the Commonwealth Pool. An actual twelve year old preceded me and he actually encouraged me to first hop and jump on the slide to increase my velocity. I declined.
However, as I soared through the stratosphere and spalshed and crashed into the water I remembered my old friend the King of Tonga and decided to have another go at this activity. After five additional attempts I was satisfied that whilst numbers are important, they are still not the defining symbols of our lives. Rather, what is important is what happens to us and what we remember as we experience each and every number.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University. He almost failed Algebra and Geometry and skipped Trigonometry. To read more about his views visit www.joegoldblatt.scot