Do You See What is Happening?
By way of buildup to next Monday's (miss it and you'll die crying) John Polidori Vampyre-fest, I hereby present a post on a strangely neglected topic. Namely, "Mathematics and the Undead".
Like many parents of glamorous (i.e. brown & damp) 70s Ireland my folks were doorstepped by one of the then ubiquitous (and aggressively persuasive) roving World Book salesmen. The end result of this exchange was a shelf full of sober volumes that told us more than we ever wanted to know about American state capitals and the intricacies of the US political system. Thrilling. The modest spoonful of sugar that helped this medicine go down came in the form of "Childcraft" – World Book's attempt to edutain and entercate the youth of planet earth.
Volume 13 in the series was Mathemagic, a typically sneaky example of the lengths adult educators often go to in their quest to groovify the ungroovy. Though most of its pages left me searching for "magic" that palpably wasn't there, a section called "Multiplying Vampires" kept me gripped and appalled.
"To stay alive", Mathemagic told us "a vampire has to bite about one person a week". After this (it continued) "the person bitten becomes a vampire too!". Note the exclamation mark used to punctuate that sinister piece of lore. In the original text it's a big round jolly one. The kind Enid Blyton might have used to cap a sentence like "Noddy had never tasted such smashing jam!". I'm looking at it right now. It's fantastically inappropriate.
Perhaps realising the unsettling oddness of its tone, "Multiplying Vampires" then shifts toward reassurance:
Many people believe there really are such creatures as vampires. But there aren't, of course. And you can use multiplication to prove to your friends that there's no such thing as a vampire.
Good ol' multiplication. There then follows a tedious passage that describes how vamps would create other vamps who would, in turn, create yet more vamps (and so on), before we're abruptly asked:
Do you see what is happening?
My response to this question, back in 1979, was something along the lines of "Yes I do see what is happening. The world is becoming progressively more well stocked with vampires. I'm scared. Make it stop."
But it doesn't stop:
At the end of the fifth week there would be two times sixteen, or thirty-two vampires, and so on. And, as this keeps on, the number of bloodthirsty vampires grows by leaps and bounds.
Waaah! And on we go. Tenth week? 1,024 vampires. Fifteenth week? 32,768 vampires. Twentieth week?
…there would be 1,048,536 vampires. That's right – more than a million vampires!
The gleeful italics and exclamation mark once again rubbed the stinky turd of fear firmly in our small anxious faces. By week 32 we're up to 4,294,967,286 vampires and we've sobbed ourselves into a hysterical puddle.
But wait a minute!
There are only about four billion people in the whole world!1
So that means…
…if there ever had been just one vampire, every person in the world would have been turned into a vampire in just thirty-two weeks! And because you know very well that you and your friends aren't vampires, you know there never was such a thing as a vampire. See?
The inevitable result of reading the words "because you know very well that you and your friends aren't vampires" was, of course, to start me suspecting the complete opposite – that all my friends were vampires. Far from offering crumbs of rational comfort, "Multiplying Vampires" ends up reading like juvenile propaganda slipped into the education system by actual vampires keen to keep pesky kids from sticking their grubby noses into their various global plots and schemes.
As if to practically admit to this suspicion the final double-page spread shows hordes of the undead lining up to enter an extravagant Gothic manor. Their HQ, no doubt, for "Operation Suck Childrens' Faces Off".
Look at the evil bastards. Laughing and leering it up thanks to the "Mathemagic" that proved they couldn't exist.
There's a lesson in there somewhere.
- Betraying its age here. [back]
September 25, 2008