8/8/2008: Running the Real Numbers on Numerology
Young chimps apparently have an extraordinary ability to remember numerals that is better then that of human adults. Here the chimp Ayumu was shown numerals flashed on screen for a split-second. He then often recalled where each numeral was and correctly identified them in ascending order, from lowest to highest.
Credit: Tetsuro Matsuzawa et al., Current Biology

There's a reason that the Beijing Olympics are slated to begin at exactly 8:08:08 PM on 8/8/08. The number 8 is considered lucky in China, and thus the games will supposedly be off to an especially auspicious start.

Of course 8/8/08 is not the only date that holds significance for people. Last year on July 7, 2007, weddings were scheduled for that date at triple the usual number, and thousands of people played sevens in the lotteries. In Florida, for example, 30,000 people chose the lucky number sevens for the Cash 3 game and the Play 4 game (all were losers).

Next year it will be 9/9/2009, then it will be 10/10/2010, and so on. Each year has at least one date that somehow seems different or unique, though there's nothing special about the dates.

This year, some companies (such as the Super 8 motel chain) are capitalizing on the trend, offering deals tied to 8/8/08. And a group called the Expolitics Institute will be joining in as well. According to their press release, "On 8/8/08 individuals and small groups around the planet will celebrate the inaugural Galactic Freedom Day. This will be the first in a series of annual global events that … will start the process of ending agreements concerning extraterrestrial life that have been secretly entered into by a range of government agencies and corporations. In some cases, these pacts involve representatives of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations." So if you want to back out of any secret deals with space aliens that may have been made on your behalf by government officials around the world, you'll have your chance.

While many people consider the date especially powerful or significant because it is loaded with eights, it should be noted that the correct numerical date for August 8, 2008 is not 8/8/8, nor 08/08/08, but instead 8/8/2008: when written correctly, only half of the six numerals in the date are eights. Those who see significance in numbers often forget that all units of time and calendars are artificial constructs. Though the official start time of the Olympics is filled with eights, it is just as correct to say that the games will start at 2000:08 on 08/08/5768 (using military time and the Jewish calendar).

There are scientific ways to see if certain numbers truly are lucky. It would be fairly easy, for example, to do a study to find out if significantly fewer people than average die at the ages of 8 or 88. Or if most people born on certain significant dates (say, 8/8/1988) are healthier or richer than their counterparts. These superstitions are very easy to test against the real world, and they consistently fail. If the numbers 7 or 8 were lucky (not only in people's imaginations but in the real world), everyone would be using them!

Though superstition and magical thinking have little to do with reality, they will always be with us. Our brains are hard-wired to search for meaning, and often people see patterns and special significance where they don't exist. If you think that the Chinese numerology is silly, remember that such superstitions are all around us. Many office and apartment buildings in America, for example, are missing a 13th floor, and some airplanes don't have a 13th row.

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Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. He wrote about superstitions in his book "Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking." His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website.