Anti-Science

13 is the loneliest number

The recently established Brussels Airlines has come under fire from idiots for the company’s use of thirteen stars in its logo. Upon unveiling the design, the company was inundated by passionate pleas from misguided clowns who objected to the number thirteen being featured so prominently on an aircraft.

For those just joining us, many cultures consider the number thirteen to be unlucky. The reason why is difficult to pinpoint, but is probably due to a few factors — for starters, thirteen is one more than twelve, a rather nice composite number. If twelve people want to play Pictionary, you have many options for forming teams of two, three, four, or six. If thirteen people want to play Pictionary, one poor jerk has to be the designated hourglass flipper. In addition to the number’s general unwieldiness, its reputation wasn’t exactly improved following the realization that Judas was the thirteenth dude at Jesus’ last noshing. Come to think of it, Judas’ reputation was in need of some serious public relations work, considering that it turns out he might have been one of the good guys after all. Anyway, the poor little number got a bad rap.

Here’s the thing. If you do a Google search to find out why we consider thirteen to be unlucky, you’ll find all the above information plus some more theories. You’ll find out all about how women on a 28-day menstrual cycle have thirteen periods in a year, and other fun factoids. Oddly, if you search to find the answer to the question, “Why do we believe thirteen is unlucky,” you will not easily find the answer, “Because it is.” Because it’s not. Why do we believe picking up the phone will give us a dial tone? Because it does! Why do we believe kittens feel soft? Because they do! Why do we believe robots are totally rad? Because they are. Why do we believe the number thirteen is unlucky? Because it is a superstition passed down throughout centuries of myth making.

But wait, I hear you ask in the spirit of open-mindedness. There must be some evidence that the number thirteen actually causes someone bad luck, right? Let’s go to Wikipedia, that lauded storehouse of information.

Most race car drivers consider 13 a very unlucky number, as a car carrying that number has never won the Indianapolis 500 or a NASCAR Nextel Cup race, and most all Formula 1 teams opt out of carrying the number 13 when car numbers are given out to teams on basis of points.

Who here sees a problem with this? Come on, raise your hands. No one? Okay, I’ll start.

First, is it possible that the number wins less often because, like the Formula 1 racers, most teams opt out of carrying it? Car #13 has been driven in the Indy 500 just twice since 1910, and only a handful of NASCAR drivers have raced the #13 car full-time throughout the organizations history.

Now, let’s look at the numbers that haven’t won the Indy 500: 10, 13, 18, 19, 21, 22, 28, 29, 33, 37-47, 49, 50, 52-65, 67, 69-81, 83-90, 92-97, 100-infinity. Are any of those considered unlucky?

That leaves us with the NASCAR Nextel Cup races, of which there are about 40. The Nextel Cup has only been around since 2004 — before that NASCAR drivers raced for the Winston Cup, so already we’ve pared down the options quite a bit assuming the Wiki author didn’t mean to include the other Cups in NASCAR’s history. Finding out the car numbers that haven’t won is a lot tougher than the Indy 500, mostly because NASCAR’s web site sucks. I found the most recent results for the Daytona 500, a pretty big Nextel Cup race, and saw that there was a #13 car, driven by Joe Nemechek — he came in 9th place and won $302,009. Poor, unlucky fellow.

After a bit more digging, I finally uncovered this history of the #13 car on NASCAR’s site. According to the article, Johnny Rutherford drove the #13 to victory at the Daytona 500 in 1963, confirming that the Wiki author did deliberately restrict the NASCAR wins to just the past two years of the “Nextel Cup.”

Man, it sure takes a lot of work to find reasons to hate a number.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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31 Comments

  1. Hi Rebecca, great blog :) Wow you did loads like proper research for this one!

    I've always wondered why Judas was the 13th guy at the party, I mean did they file in in that order? Did they take a number at the door? Unless I'm missing something (and often I do, I just spent some time trying to find the pen that was (at that very time) in my hand in my drawer) any one of them including the J-dude could be number 13. It sounds a bit like, 13 is bad coz Judas was number 13. And Judas was number 13 coz.. ah you get it..

  2. I suppose we know who the first apostle was. Or at least, the appostle who claimed in his gospel that Jesus told him he was the most important one (Peter, his very name, Petrus is actually Latin for "rock" I believe, because Jesus said he was the rock on which he built his kingdom, or some such crap).

    Anyway, I digress. If it's possible to find out who the first one was, it should be possible to figure out to some extent in what order the twelve (12 !) apostles joined Jesus' gang, and who is therefore, by chronology, the last and 12th apostle.

    Either way, I think it makes sense to assume that Jesus is the odd one out in that group of 13 people at the last supper, supposedly being half god and everything.

    Or, maybe Mary is the odd one out, being female, and probably sleeping with the man himself. although that would bring the total up to 14, and then it just completely breaks down.

    As for the wiki-guy with the nascar myth, perhaps you should change his entry (with links to the nascar site supporting your point), and comment on why you did so. That's the power of wiki: you can alter things that are wrong.

  3. Thanks Liam, though I'm upset I didn't have more time to research the winning NASCAR numbers.

    I think the Last Supper theory goes more like, "There were 13 people at the Last Supper. One of them was evil. Therefore, 13 is an evil number." Either that, or you're correct and Judas stumbled in late.

    Also, I agree, Exarch, if there's a 13th guy than it's the deity. In the painting, the figures are composed in groups of three, with Jesus as the odd man-god out.

  4. Unfortunately for those looking to find the correct order of apostles joining Jesus, the gospels are fairly inconsistent on who the apostles even were, never mind the order and manner in which they joined.

    In the name of the Diety, the boy, and Larry.

  5. Come on, as everyone knows, having learnt history from the Da Vince Code (come on, it was a movie, it must be true!), 13 is unlucky because it comes from Friday the 13th, when the Knights Templar were executed throughout Europe!

    It's obvious!! STREETLIGHT!!! (*)

    (*)Okay, I didn't start with that thought/reference in mind, but ended up there anyway… :)

  6. I was going to comment about the 13 stripes in the US flag, but I see that someone beat me to it. And there were originally 13 stars as well. Ask the original inhabitants of this continent whether or not this is an unlucky place!

  7. One thing about superstitions like this is that in cases where self-confidence plays a role in performance, the superstition can be self-fulfilling. Baseball players are notoriously superstitious about going up to bat (and I doubt race car drivers are any less superstitious), and they go through all sorts of rituals before and during a game. If a batter suddenly realizes, "oh no, I forgot to touch the top of my head three times, there's no way I can hit this pitch!" then it's less likely that he'll hit that pitch. And so it might be a good idea for race car drivers to avoid ANYTHING that might give them a confidence dip or their competitors a confidence boost, since the margins for victory are razor-thin.

    Superstitions where confidence doesn't play a role, of course, are bogus (e.g. "Everytime I wear this shirt, the Red Sox lose" or "Damn, I'm not going to get the card I need for blackjack because I forgot my lucky dessicated hamster foot!").

  8. mfaison: that's certainly true that attitude and confidence can have a direct effect on performance. Your point about racecar drivers and baseball players being equally superstitious reminds me of something I read a while ago suggesting that the less control one has over an outcome, the more superstitious he tends to be. For instance, baseball players are very superstitious about batting, but less so about fielding. Gamblers who rely even more on sheer luck are even more superstitious. It may have been in Why People Believe Weird Things.

  9. I work on the 13th floor of a building where the original elevator button for the 13th floor just had a star on it. At some point they got brave and put embossed numbers with Braille dots next to all the buttons. Some foreign visitors were on the elevator one day and asked me to explain the strange situation to them. I really didn't know where to begin.

  10. For skeptics, you're being surprisingly Christian-centric! 13's bad rep predates Christianity by quite a while, *especially* at the dinner table. The "Thirteenth Guest" theme appears in a number of European mythologies. The usual pattern is that there are only 12 place settings at a dinner for the gods, and a neglected guest shows up to wreak havoc. In Greek mythology, we have Eris (Strife) tossing the Golden Apple, as a lead-in to the Trojan War. In Norse mythology, the thirteenth guest was (natch) Loki, though I don't remember what his mischief was that time. In German folklore (Grimm's Tales) the "gods" are fairies, in the prologue to "Hawthorn Rose", later known and corrupted as "Sleeping Beauty". Given that particular lineup of mythoi, I'd expect to see it somewhere in Hindu mythology too, but I don't know very much Hindu mythology.

  11. I fly to or from work once a week and it still catches me out that there is no row 13. No gap; just 11, 12, 14, 15. Somewhat amusing when you consider the SCIENCE required to get the thing in the air in the first place. (And how does someone in row 13 get in a plan crash without taking the rest of the plane with them? Doesn't that, even by triskadekaphobic logic, make all the seats equally unlucky?)

  12. Sorry to have to do this Harmon, but cite?

    I've just done a brief search today, and the poetic sources of greek mythology are a bit tricky to read, but I can't see any mention of the number of guests, just that all the gods were there, except Eris/Discord.

    As for Loki, he is indeed the thirteenth guest mentioned, but:

    a) <a>Loki's Wrangling goes on to mention two important servants and that "many were there of gods and elves".

    b) Norse mythology was recorded in the 13th century by Christian scribes, who could well have added any unlucky 13 symbolism that is to be found.

    I'm open to contradictory _evidence_ though. ;)

  13. Actually Harmon, the whole "thirteen is unlucky because …" bit comes from wikipedia apparently. Most of the "reasons" we've debated were in rebecca's blog post. There may be plenty of reasons why this belief started, but we're just breaking down the (un)logic of the ones provided so far.

    As for not using the number for seats and floors, I always imagine if that means that a British cat-burglar trying to steal something from the 12th floor in an American building might thus accidentally break into the 14th floor appartment by mistake.

  14. Bjornar is in my head now. I don't recall having ever read anything about 13 being involved with Eris. I checked my books, just in case my memory is failing. Eris was not popular in Olympus and simply was invited to the wedding – there's no mention of the number of guests. She showed up to cause trouble, threw the Apple of Discord (or the Golden Apple, as it's often referred to), and Hera, Athena & Aphrodite went for "the fairest of them all" inscribed on the apple. Paris did not eventually picked not the fairest of those three, but what they promised to him: Aphrodite promised the fairest in the land to Paris, who was Helen of Troy. And so on to the family discord that led to the war. (That's a real brief description leaving out many details!)

    So, like Bjornar I'm wondering about a citation there, just out of curiousity. And "Sleeping Beauty?" You have more of an "apple" theme going in your post than 13. :-)

  15. I meant to say Eris was NOT invited to the wedding. Missed that word. She was not popular among the gods of Olympus. She's known as the sister to Ares. All fun mythology to make things happen and create reasons.

  16. On Friday November 13, 1981, I had my first date with a certain girl. She was as hot as they get. This sure was a lucky day, Friday 13 or not.

    I woke up next to that same girl this morning. And she's still hot :)

  17. My mythology books are currently crated (for an impending move), it may take me a few hours to dig out the relevant sources. The Eris story should be in the Iliad and probably in Bullfinch as well. As I remember it, the pretext was that Hera had only 12 golden place settings. As I said, the "Hawthorn Rose" story is from the Grimm brothers' compilation of traditional and morality tales. The Norse version is the one I'm foggiest on.

  18. Here's a page with the NASCAR car number history dating back to 1949 – http://www.racing-reference.info/carnum.htm.

    It's sorted by the number of starts. 13's near the bottom, but the least entered number is 65. Damn, that's 13 * 5. It must be quintuple unlucky.

    The old racing superstition was that driving a green car was unlucky. The green car superstition started to go away after Skoal and Quaker State got into the mix in the 80's. In today's big business NASCAR, a sponsor that wants to give you millions of dollars to run a green car trumps superstition. Capitalism knocks superstition into the wall.

  19. First and easiest cite: The Grimm's German Folk Tales, Translated by Magoun and Krappe, Arcturus Books/Southern illinois University Press. ISBN 0-8093-0356-6: Story 50, "Hawthorn Blossom".

    "He invited not only his relatives, friends, and acquaintances, but also the wise women, that they might be gracious and well disposed toward the child. There were thirteen of them in his kingdom, but because he only had twelve gold plated from which they might eat, one of them had to stay home…. When eleven had finished bestowing their gifts, suddenly the thirteenth came in. She wanted to revenge herself for not having been invited…." Though this translation says "wise women", my Folklore & Mythology classes in college indicated that this was a bowdlerization. The "Rose" is possibly my mismemory, or it may come from a different translation I read at some point.

  20. On the Greek version: OK, the Iliad starts afterwards and on "ground level", and Hesiod comes up dry, at least from index and contents.

    Bullfinch simply says "all the goddesses were invited except Eris", likewise Herzberg. No thirteens there yet. Still looking for their source in "original" material, but it may not be handy to me.

  21. in reference to the british cat burgular getting confused in an american building:

    I always reckoned the british had a ground floor then a first floor (rather than them both being the same things like in the US) because they wanted to make things easy for computer science students trying to wrap their head around arrays that start with an index of zero.

  22. The old racing superstition was that driving a green car was unlucky. The green car superstition started to go away after Skoal and Quaker State got into the mix in the 80’s.

    Actually the notion that green cars were unlucky was at Indianapolis (which was influential throughout American racing), and actually started to go away when British teams started to arrive in the 1960s. They often liked driving green cars since green was the official British racing color (in fact the color, a dark green, was referred to as "British Racing Green"). The Italian color was red (naturally), the US color white with blue stripes, French was blue, and Germany was white, although Mercedes followed Auto Union's lead and adopted silver as it's official color instead.

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