Pen Ultimate / A Game of Fives

Five is good. Five-by-five is loud and clear. Fifty-fifty is just so-so

I've been editing the "Books" section of the Hebrew version of Haaretz for more than 10 years now, and it just so happened, rather naturally, that this week I sent the 555th issue to print. There is nothing mathematically special or extraordinary in a number like 222, 333 or 444, but each time I reach an issue with a number of a palindromic nature, I write a couple of words about it. Or rather, I have written about the numbers that are multiples of 111, which in itself has some mathematical interest. So, if I have honored 2, 3 and 4 in the past, I cannot very well offend the 5.

If the Jews are, indeed, the People of the Book, "the Book" itself is the Pentateuch, the five holy books of the Torah, and of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. There are, however, scholars that claim that originally these books were intended to be grouped either as a Tetrateuch (minus Deuteronomy, which should be grouped with Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), or as a Hexateuch (with the addition of the Book of Joshua). But I'm afraid I'm underqualified to address those issues here. (Note that, according to the Jewish sages, when you reach the age of five, you should start studying the Torah).

Star material

The pentagram, or pentacle - a five-pointed star and the simplest kind of star that can be drawn with a single line - was a symbol of pagan faiths, then came to symbolize the five wounds suffered by Jesus Christ and finally the "Red Revolution" (which sought to impose a five-day work week and to institute industrialization according to a five-year plans).

"The Fifth Element" in Luc Bessons' film is love, personified by the red-headed Mila Yovovich; the four others are earth, water, wind and fire.

Georges Ifrah writes in his book "Histoire Universelle des Chiffres" that scientists think our capability of grasping a quantity of objects in a group at one time is limited to four. More objects than that have to be counted. And as the human being is blessed with five fingers (or digits) on each of his or her hands and feet, the natural universal, visual way of counting is by groups of five. Also you may denote with a line each of the first four things you are counting, and then cross those lines with a fifth, thus counting groups of five as you go along.

Today there are almost no civilizations whose counting systems are based on five, but in the decimal system, 5 has a special significance. Many Central American languages express the numbers 6 through 9 as 5 + 1, 5 + 2 and so on.

The "give-me-five" gesture and expression originated probably in the U.S. Army units in Vietnam, in the `60s. Basketball is played with teams of five, and from that sport's court comes the gesture, and hence the expression, "high five" - the slapping of hands above the head, which two people do to celebrate a basket or other achievement. The "five" is clearly the five fingers. This high-five business began in the American basketball league during its 1979-80 season. Derek Smith, a University of Louisville player, claims to have coined the phrase.

The Romans used the letter "V" for 5, and it became a symbol of victory over time, denoted by holding up the pointer and middle fingers. The letter "V" for ("victory") in Morse Code is three dots and a dash like the first four notes of Beethoven's fifth symphony. The hamsa (the word for "five" in Arabic, symbolized by a hand) is a good-luck charm. Generally "five" seems to have a positive meaning - except maybe for the Fifth Column (which may also be a good thing, for while the other four are besieging a town from the outside, for example, the fifth works for the cause - which is subversive to the towns' future - from the inside).

Five is a prime number, and the Pythagoreans associated it with marriage - as a combination of the first even number, 2, which is supposed to be female, and the first odd number (above 1), 3, apparently male. Five is also the fifth number in the Fibonacci sequence (in which each number is a sum of the preceding two: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 ...).

Each time an odd number is multiplied by five, the resulting figure will end with 5. And 55, which is also the 10th number in the Fibonacci sequence, can be described verbally as "five-five."

Loud and clear

In the '50s the writer Aharon Megged wrote, as part of his reserve duty, a musical for the Central Command entertainment team, about five soldiers falling in love with five country girls. It was originally called "An Invasion of a Village," but when its director, Gideon Shemer, produced it commercially in 1956, on the stage of the Ohel theater (with music by Yochanan Zarai and the first known lyrics and melodies of Naomi Shemer, starring the then until then unknown Rika Zarai, who later had a successful career in Europe), it was renamed "Five by Five."

That expression originated in wireless radio communication, possibly by the end of the World War I, and was certainly used in World War II. One operator asks the other, "How do you read? Over," (or "Do you read? Over"). The loudness and clarity of the signal is rated on a scale of five. In WW2 the English and Canadians used to answer "loud and clear," but the Americans kept insisting on digital rating, preferably "five by five," which in American slang means also a short and fat person (five feet high and five feet wide). In the Hebrew of the '50s, "five by five," or "hamesh-hamesh," meant "excellent," "lots of fun," "the best," which nowadays is expressed in Israeli slang as "eser," meaning 10.

As I have already provided a lot of irrelevant information here (imagine an e-mail from one Y. Arafat to one A. Sharon, with a subject line "re:Levant"), here's one more bit of trivia: 555 is the name of a timer, an integrated circuit that was designed in 1971 and is still one of the most popular. It allows us to delay signals, or send them consecutively, with equal intervals of time passing between one signal and the next (for instance, when using the blinkers in a car). The timer got its name from the fact that among its many components are three 5-kilo-ohm resistors connected to each other (I didn't study electronics in high school for nothing).

So, to recapitulate: Five is good. Five-by-five is loud and clear. Fifty-fifty is just so-so. And five-five-five is merely steady, consecutive signals separated by equal measures of time. Like a weekly literary supplement.

Take five.