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by Thomas Wagner | 1/1/2015

The future remains dark. Which is hardly surprising. Not that this means it has to get really somber, irrespective of what will happen in the New Year that comes as 2015 in the calendar series.
As Dirk Helbing likewise knows. He’s a physicist and mathematician and teaches Sociology at ETH Zurich, whereby his main focus is on model formation and simulations. Since thanks to sensors, big data and the “Internet of Things” an increasing volume of data on climate conditions, the state inside our fridges and even the state of our socks is now becoming available, Helbing is busy developing a very special piece of measuring equipment: a kind of “real-time Google” accessible to everyone. In this world simulator you would then enter a question (assuming you have one) and on the basis of the existing data and thanks to an ingenious algorithm you get an answer, for example on the danger of a war in Asia or the number of foodstuffs that are past their sell-by date in fridges in Herford – or whatever.

Somehow the idea of such a world simulator seems strange, which is why its realization, along with all the consequences, is very probable going to happen. One invariably thinks of Douglas Adams’ novel “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and the somewhat opaque question asked there about “life, the universe and Everything”. At any rate, in the novel the second-largest computer in the universe buzzes on and on until it spits out the answer: 42. Not that anyone has any idea what this may mean, because no one knows exactly what the question was. Which brings us to a number. And of course that number in response to all the questions ever asked could just as easily be 2015. So let us leave aside for a moment the somewhat odd feeling that at the end of the day/year Dirk Helbing may be both a Dr. Jekyll and a Mr. Hyde, as the idea at least justifies us returning to our annual speculation with numerological assumptions.

20, as we already know, is not an especially interesting number in this regard, but in many cultures functions as an important basis for counting. Your fingers and toes together add up to 20 and in French 80 is, after all, expressed as quatre-vingt, as four times 20. And 20 also once played an important role in measuring things: A “ream” of paper are 20 “books”, and a “rack” had 20 eggs or sheep, and a “swath” as cut through a field was originally a line on which 20 tuna fish were hung up to dry. Which could lead in Helbing’s world simulator to hanging up tuna fish to dry becoming the hype of 2015, assuming enough people could be found who were all willing to hang up the set of fish to dry. Then it would hardly matter (and this again says something about the state of play in 2015) that in Christian Medieval thought the number 20 was used to explain the realization of the 10 commandments in human activity or as a multiple of the five books of Moses or of the four books of the Apostles and as the way the five senses were guided by the Apostles.

And the number 15? Well, irrespective of what consequences this may have, it was considered a lunar numeral and constituted the high point of the moon’s power, something that was reflected in the measurement known as a “set of 15”, which as derived from mande, refers to the half-moon. Astronomically speaking, the half-moon, where exactly one half of the surface of the moon is visible, is also termed a half-moon phase. As a waxing moon, it denotes the end of the first quarter and as a waning half-moon the beginning of the final quarter of a lunar cycle. Be that as it may, residues of an ancient lunar cult have survived in the number 15. This fantasy about the power of the moon goes hand in glove with the arithmetic and mystical meaning of 15 as the sum of all numbers from 1 to 5 (1+2+3+4+5 = 15) and the fact that 15 is the product of the holy primes 3 and 5. Perhaps we can conclude from this that in 2015 we will be in a watershed. From now on in, something either increases or decreases, whatever it may be apart from the moon.

Just how alive the idea of the mystical properties of 15 have remained in our rational world can be seen from another angle. For 15 plays a central role in one of the most frequent magic squares, created round the holy 5, and in which the sum of the numbers on the two diagonals and on the two axes is always 15.

Hardly surprisingly, today the magical square in question with five at its center forms the layout of numbers on pocket calculators.

Whether the magic of the pocket calculator points to the fact that 2015 will be a year of calculations is anyone’s guess. We can’t answer that one. What is certain, however, is that in early 2015 there will be even more robot journalists, machines that file reports in real time, that the first immortal mouse will be about to be bred, our cities will be rendered more secure from drones, and of every 100 people 21 will continue to be overweight, 63 will have a normal weight, 15 will suffer from malnutrition and one will be starving. And that the answer to all our questions will still be 42. So here’s wishing you a good, happy, successful and peaceful 2015. Cheers!