When zero was a magic number

Like many broadsheet newspapers around the world, The Sunday Telegraph in the UK sees quite a diverse range of subjects discussed in its Letters to the Editor section. From events of global importance, to the most trivial of topics that only concern the smallest slivers of society. The latter was never truer than on February 15, 1987.

Keith Rodger from Wilmslow in Cheshire wrote: “I note that the first of October this year, 1. 10. 1987 will read 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 in reverse. This must be a very rare occurrence. Is it worthy of note?”

“Who cares?” I hear you ask. Well, one of the few people who did care was a Mr. Kenneth Robert Imeson of Cambridge. The then 78-year-old retired teacher, was still a man who loved numbers. He had yet to finish his 1989 book “The Magic of Number“.

the magic of number

Evidence of his love dates back to 1947. As a Cambridge graduate and headmaster of Sir Joseph William Mathematical School in Rochester, Kent, he wrote, in vain, to University College London asking that biologists get better mathematics training.

K. R. Imeson (front row, fourth from left), Headmaster of Nottingham High School, 1954

K. R. Imeson (front row, fourth from left), Headmaster of Nottingham High School, 1954. [Old Nottinghamians’ Society Yearbook 2009/2010]

So on that February Sunday in 1987, Imeson took on Rodger’s challenge and penned a letter detailing some past occurrences: 1.10.198, 5.4.321, 9.8.765, 2.11.1019 & 21.1.1019; along with the next time he figured it would happen: 6.5.4321.

The Sunday Telegraph printed his letter on February 22nd – something which would have made him proud, were it not for the short letter, from another reader, that followed it. It read: “What about 5th of April, 3210 – 5-4-3-2-1-0?”*

An embarrassment for the old teacher for sure. But the Sunday Telegraph’s editor decided to hit him with a sucker punch, and included the reader’s age: 9.

Yes, that reader was me. My one-line letter came up in conversation last month, when I was home in Ireland for Christmas. My dad spent hours trying to find the clipping, but couldn’t locate it before I returned to Canada. He mailed it to me this week. It’s the first time I’ve seen it since 1987.

Me, my family, and our friends' dog "Auburn", circa 1987.

Me, my family, and our friends’ dog Auburn, circa 1987.

What had actually happened back in 1987 was that my dad read the original letter from Keith Rodgers, and challenged me to figure out when such a date would next occur. I remember sitting down to do it. When I was done, he told me to write to the editor, but “keep it short!” I did.

The following Sunday morning I heard the paper come through the letterbox. (My dad, who lived in the UK in his 20s, still reads at least one Irish newspaper and one English newspaper every Sunday). I leaped down the stairs, checked it, and saw my name. I ran back upstairs to wake dad and show him. I remember him laughing, noting the number of times he had written to newspapers, sometimes without being published.

The Sunday Telegraph letters page, February 22, 1987. Who knew Canadian-style breakfasts were so popular in the '80s?

The Sunday Telegraph letters page, February 22, 1987. Who knew Canadian-style breakfasts were so popular in the ’80s?

I had always wondered who that other man was. I felt sorry for him back then. It was a simple mistake. This week, having researched his life, I feel even worse.

Imeson died aged 85, in April 1994, just weeks before I sat my Leaving Certificate state exam at the end of my five years of secondary school. My only A was in mathematics. I suppose it was partly because I accounted for zeros. It’s easy to miss what’s not even there.

===

*An even closer future date, albeit with a shorter sequence, is: 3.1.2111. Turns out I wasn’t so smart after all.

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