Tuesday, December 27, 2011

62: Names Of God

    You've probably heard that this week, one of the greatest science
fiction writers of the 20th century, Arthur C Clarke, passed away.
Clarke was probably best known for being the author of the book and
movie "2001: A Space Odyssey".  Personally, I prefer movies where you
don't also have to read the book in order to figure out the plot-- but
I guess that's a bit off-topic.  I thought for our podcast topic this
week, it would be fun to reminisce about one of Clarke's more
mathematically-oriented short stories, the 1954 Hugo award winner
titled "The Nine Billion Names of God".  The full text is online and
linked in the show notes, but I'll summarize it for you.
    The story centers on a pair of engineers who are hired to help set
up a computer for a group of Tibetan monks.  The monks believe that
all the names of God can be enumerated by combining certain letters in
a special alphabet according to a specific set of rules, such as never
repeating the same letter three times in a row.  So they want a
computer program to print our all such combinations, of which they
estimate about nine billion legal ones.  They had expected it to take
thousands of years, but the arrival of moden computer technology has
made a vastly accelerated schedule possible. 
    The two engineers who are dispatched with the computer find out
that according to the monks' beliefs, once all the names are
enumerated, mankind will have served his purpose on Earth.  They get a
little nervous about the implications, and consider sabotaging the
project, but do complete their job in the end.  The story ends just as
the final name is being printed.  And the final line is imprinted on
the memory of several generations of sci-fi fans:  "Overhead, without
any fuss, the stars were going out."
    I did a little web searching to see if I could locate any
real-life religious beliefs that might have inspired this story.  It
turns out that in Kabbalah, the ancient mystical form of Judaism
embraced by Madonna and other trendy Hollywood pop stars, there is a
similar procedure for finding names of God.  The 72 names of God can
be constructed using 72 unique combinations of three Hebrew letters
from Chapter 14 of the Book of Exodus.  You start by taking the first
letter of verse 14:19, the last letter of 14:20, and the first letter
of 14:21.  The you take the second letter of verse 14:19, the second
to last of 14:20, and the second letter of 14:21, and so on.
Enumerating them all will not end mankind's purpose for existence,
which is fortunate I guess, since it doesn't really take that long to
list 72 names.  But they do have special powers.  According to a
strange Jerusalem organization known as the Kabbalah Center, these
names "create a spiritual vibration that is a powerful antidote to the
negative energy of the human ego."  Apparently when Moses parted the
Red Sea, the real way he did this was by suddenly reciting the 72
Names.  Modern-day Kabbalah followers wear two amulets, each with 36
of the names, in order to benefit from their mystical powers.
    So, next time you are idly calculating permutations or
combinations of letters and numbers, watch out-- you might cause
nearby bodies of water to part, or even instigate the end of the
    And this has been your math mutation for today.

  • "The Nine Billion Names of God", complete text online
  • Kabbalah Center article on the Kabbalistic 72 names of God
  • More details on various Names of God
  • Arthur C Clarke at Wikipedia
  • Wikipedia article on "The Nine Billion Names of God"
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