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Humans constantly find beauty in symmetry. The scientific community initially scoffed at mathematician George David Birkhoff in the early twentieth century when he claimed that people naturally find simple art most appealing when it has symmetrical features. More recently, scientific research has supported Birkhoff’s theories, with Karl Grammer and Randy Thornhill famously positing that “men would prefer averageness and symmetry in women’s faces, and that women would prefer averageness and symmetry in men’s faces,” in their 1983 piece in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. Once Grammer and Thornhill popularized theories of correlation between symmetry and beauty in sexual attraction, the theory expanded into other realms of society such as beauty in nature and music. Humans have evolved with biological programming to seek out symmetry for sensual beauty. Hence, the asymmetrical nature of odd numbers has condemned them to being called “odd.”
How can a number be symmetrical? Of course, thinking about numbers in the traditional, visual sense only yields symmetry for 0, 3, and 8. Yet, approached mathematically, numbers have a far greater meaning than their mere physical appearance. Webster’s Third defines symmetry as “beauty of form arising from balanced proportions.” With this definition in mind, we can view numbers as symmetrical or asymmetrical based on their arithmetic divisibility into two equal parts. Odd numbers distinguish themselves from even numbers through their inability to be divided into two equal whole numbers when halving. Therefore, these “odd” numbers are merely asymmetrical numbers.
As previously explored, humans find less beauty in asymmetrical concepts in society than in pure symmetry. Perhaps the most extreme example of the plight of asymmetry is Joseph Merrick: the famous Elephant Man. Living in the mid-nineteenth century, Merrick built a reputation and famed story through his extreme facial deformities. Society ostracized Merrick for his asymmetrical anomalies, and Merrick struggled to find employment because employers found him aesthetically disgusting. He eventually settled for employment through novelty exhibits, where people would pay to look and laugh at him. The Elephant Man’s predetermined asymmetrical aesthetic appearance led to his condemnation as an “oddity” of society.
So perhaps the problem with odd numbers lies not with their nomenclature, but rather with the connotation of the word that describes them. The term “odd” immediately evokes a negative connotation, but its Webster’s Third denotation of “different from what is normal or unexpected” should not have such a strong negative connotation. In society, while conformists are often lauded based on adherence to social norms, the people who defy these expectations often emerge as the ones with the most successful and meaningful lives.
Yet look at one of the most influential business leaders of recent generations – Bill Gates. As an adolescent, Gates was considered odd by his classmates because of his habits of spending countless hours in computer labs instead of participating in typical adolescent activities. His peers deemed him combative in social interactions: Gates gravitated towards antisocial activities like computer programming and reading. Eventually, Gates excelled as a businessman by revolutionizing technology through Microsoft, and now thrives in philanthropic endeavors as he aims to solve global health problems in Africa. The same qualities and activities that were considered “odd” by Gates’s childhood peers later propelled him to a meaningful and impactful life.
Similar rhetoric can describe the significance of odd numbers in society. Several odd numbers have become associated with greater meaning than their mere mathematical definitions. In particular, “3” and “7” are often used in literature and modern culture to portray luck. Conversely, the odd number “13” has become a symbol of bad luck through its use in urban legends and myths. Ultimately, though, mathematics could not even exist in its current form without odd numbers, which appear with the exact same frequency as even numbers.
I have learned through this investigation that the term “odd” has evolved with an unjust negative connotation in society. I immediately considered the adjective “odd” as a way for society to undermine these arithmetically asymmetrical and perhaps less appealing numbers. However, oddity – and individuality – must be used as a way to thrive, to find true significance and personal meaning. Society may often deter people from pursuing personal passions based on the fear of appearing “odd,” but these fears must be conquered. Like those fascinating asymmetrical numbers, we all must embrace our own oddities.
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