The Origin of 47 at Pomona College

Date: Mon, 13 Nov 1995
From: (Wayne Phillips)
Subject: Origin of 47

Hello from the [Pomona College] class of '68! I was quite excited to see the recent article in Pomona Today about the frequent appearance of the number 47 on Star Trek. (My wife, Julie Ellis Phillips '68 had already noticed this.) Moreover, I was pleased to find the Pomona WEB page (which is excellent, by the way) and discover that it contained a short list of '47' facts.

It was unclear to me, however, if the authors of the WEB page or the Pomona Today article knew the history of the "discovery" of 47.

I was only a second-hand observer to these earth-shaking events, I must admit. During the summer of 1964, I and a number of students were invited to participate in a "pre-freshman summer science program" at Pomona.

Among those present were Laurie Mets, Bruce Elgin, and the late Buck Lawrence, who died tragically in a climbing accident a few years after graduation. One day I came across the three [of them] counting steps in a Pomona stairwell - there were 47. I was then shown a long list of interesting facts about 47, including the Rolaid's fact (scientifically impossible, by the way). My favorite was the fact that it requires 47 divisions of one cell to produce the number of cells in the human body.

I'm afraid my recollection of the details is a bit rusty, and I'm sure Laurie or Bruce could fill in the details. One of the three had been arguing that his favorite number (not 47) occured more (or was it less?) often than expected in nature. They decided to count occurrences of this number, and as a sort of control, compare it with another number. 47 was picked because it was a large prime number, which, it was assumed, would appear rather infrequently.

Well, as we would now expect, they were astounded to discover that 47 not only won by a wide margin, but also occurred at a phenomenal frequency. As interest grew, the list of 47 facts lengthened.

We all assumed that the "discovery" of 47 would be quickly forgotten once the class of '68 graduated. But it is the nature of true scientific discoveries to outlive their origins, however humble!

Wayne F. Phillips, M.D., Ph.D.
Class of '68
Born in 1947


Just for your information, the fact that Dr. Donald Bentley proved that all numbers are equal to 47 in the summer of 1964 is correct. In fact, as I recall, Dr. Bentley had developed a proof that any number is equal to any other number. Laurie and Bruce had been talking to him about their discovery of 47, and hence, as a corollary, they were able to show that all numbers are equal to 47.

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