Thursday, 25 February 2016

Why 007 is the magic number - revisited

Back in 2011, I considered the factors that made Bond's code number, 007, such a successful meme in the cultural environment, the number being memorable and highly recognisable the world over. I suggested that its effective use as a symbol and trade mark, its adaptability (for instance the seven being depicted as the handle of a gun, and the incorporation of 007 into film titles), and the common way that it is pronounced – double oh seven – are strong contributing factors.

Since then, there's been some interesting research by mathematician Alex Bellos on how numbers are perceived in culture and the role numbers have in daily life, and I was reminded about this recently. The work may add another factor to what makes 007 so successful.

For part of his research, Alex Bellos carried out a survey among members of the public to find out their favourite number. Top of the list, out of an infinite sequence of numbers, was seven. When asked to characterise the number seven, respondents suggested words such as magical, intelligent and masculine, but also awkward and overconfident (most of which could apply to Bond!).

Alex Bellos describes his research in the book, Alex Through the Looking Glass (2014, Bloomsbury). In it, he writes about the cultural significance of the number seven – there are seven days a week, seven wonders of the world, seven deadly sins, and so on – but he dismisses the idea that these are what makes seven so special.

Instead, the number's significance, Alex Bellos suggests, lies in its oddness. Seven has unique arithmetic properties (for example, it cannot be multiplied or divided within the group of numbers one to ten). And when asked to think of a number, people are most likely to think of seven or a number ending in seven.

Returning to James Bond, we can therefore also suggest that 007 is successful, because seven is an odd number in more ways than one, and because of the way the number seven is brought so readily to mind. Alternative code numbers, say 002 or 005, just wouldn't be so good. While people would recognise the name James Bond easily enough, they might be more hard-pressed to remember his code number.

As I intimated in my 2011 blog post, Ian Fleming's creation of the code number 007 was inspired, and has surely contributed to James Bond's longevity and popularity.

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