Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Loneliest Number: An Empirical Study

Astute readers who can get past the burnished-chrome blouses and pants, the vertical stripes, and the disconcerting mustaches will recognize the above band as Three Dog Night—especially if, being readers, they can indeed read the phrase “THREE DOG NIGHT” when it appears onscreen at about the 0:14 mark—and will perhaps be able to identify the tune as their top-five rendition of the song “One,” originally written and recorded by Harry Nilsson in 1968. 

The band—not to mention the general public—was almost certainly unaware that Nilsson conducted extensive research into numerical loneliness, laying down a bedrock layer of scientific certitude upon which he would build his lyrics. He began his research more than a decade before he wrote a single verse, at a time when the members of Three Dog Night probably couldn’t muster up any sort of mustaches at all. 

Nilsson’s notes on the subject were believed to have been lost—mysteriously stolen from his workshop long before his death in 1994. But they were discovered by accident in a vast U.S. government warehouse, crumpled into loose balls and used as packing material inside a partially-burned crate containing a large, metal-plated chest of undetermined Middle Eastern origin. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, Nilsson’s notes on numerolonliness are reproduced here in their entirety:

  • One, according to empirical evidence attained through observation and controlled testing, is the loneliest number.
  • Two can be as bad as one; it’s the loneliest number since (see above).
  • The third-loneliest number: Twelve.
  • Three, in terms of love, really is a crowd.
  • Four is surprisingly well-adjusted; it’s actually the eighty-second loneliest number.
  • Five: alone, but not lonely.
  • Seven: Has struggled with feelings of inadequacy ever since Aerosmith released “Big Ten-Inch Record” in 1975.
    • Eight. . . . Eight. I forgot what eight was for.
    • Nine is looking for Mister Aught, but will settle for Mister Aught Now.
    • Ten needs to be okay with itself first before it can be comfortable with anyone else.
      • Thirteen only hurts the ones it loves.
      • believes love is forever.

      7 and 2: unlucky in love, too.


      1. As a member of the Foundation to Discredit Studies As Flawed, I believe this study is flawed. One may appear to be the loneliest number, but even a casual observer will note that One is everywhere. Every list starts with it, every countdown ends with it. One is, in reality, a very popular number.

        While it is important to acknowledge One's feelings of loneliness, they are simply not supported by the facts. This suggests that One could have an undiagnosed mental disorder -- perhaps schizophrenia or severe depression -- that makes it unable to discern reality from its carefully maintained and well-guarded "loneliness" construct.

        The results of this study indicate that too much value was placed on anecdotal evidence and self-reported loneliness, rather than observing and measuring loneliness in a controlled setting. A more thorough study would, I feel, reveal that the loneliest number is actually a bazillion, a number often spoken of, but so rarely seen that the Foundation could not even locate it to gain its consent to be included in further studies.

      2. We’ve been following the work of Foundation to Discredit Studies as Flawed for many years now, and have been consistently impressed with its quality and thoroughness, especially in the fields of discrediting, demystifying, debunking, and even the occasional re-bunking.

        In this case, however, we suspect that the Foundation has failed to fully consider the primitive nature of scientific inquiry of the late 1960s, and how such limitations would have made it nearly impossible to even realize that a bazillion existed.

        Most of Nilsson’s early research—as with all science performed before about 1974—likely involved banging several sizes of rocks together, and it was only the Sumerians’ recent invention of cuneiform writing that allowed his later notes to be preserved for future generations. It’s a little-known fact that pre-1960s Americans had no concept of the number “one,” so Nilsson’s mere ability to grasp the concept of this elusive number represents a significant leap forward in our mathematical thinking.

        It also should be noted that one bazillon, while certainly worth consideration in a twenty-first-century reevaluation of numeroloneliness, is known to be remarkably close to a googol, a kajillion, and umpteen, and is a known associate of the sagan unit.