The odds are against even numbers

Prime numbers have a certain mystical allure, a flair that other numbers lack. (Stock Image)
Prime numbers have a certain mystical allure, a flair that other numbers lack. (Stock Image)


Two, four, six, eight, too dull to enumerate.

There’s something odd about our arithmetic. Like Rodney Dangerfield, even numbers don’t get no respect.

Start with prime numbers. A prime number has only two factors, meaning it is divisible only by itself and 1. Except for 2, the token even number in the lot, the prime numbers—3, 5, 7, 11, etc.—are all odd. Prime numbers have a certain mystical allure, a flair that other numbers lack. Amazon calls its elite service “Prime." The word connotes status and superiority.

The three most popular sports in America—football, basketball, baseball—all feature teams consisting of an odd number of players: 11, five and nine. The evens lose again.

“Jeopardy!"—the most-watched game show of all time—pits three opponents against each other. “Wheel of Fortune" likewise. A common feature of jokes is the “rule of three," wherein the laughter-inducing surprise always comes in the third element of the joke. Ever hear someone tell a joke about two traveling salesmen?

Shakespeare’s plays are written in five acts. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, five piano concertos, one opera, and one violin concerto. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s 1928 masterpiece, based on John Gay’s 18th-century play “The Beggar’s Opera," was called “The Threepenny Opera," not “The Twopence Opera." Even Neil Simon’s breakout comedy was “The Odd Couple."

Hollywood got the memo about avoiding the evens long ago. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," “The Seven Samurai," “The 39 Steps," “Five Easy Pieces," “9½ Weeks," “Ocean’s Eleven." (All right, there were “12 Angry Men" and “Eight Men Out," but they’re exceptions that prove the rule.) In another defeat for the evens, the title of the film “Three Days of the Condor" was changed from the book’s original title, “Six Days of the Condor."

In Russia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and other Eastern European countries, bouquets traditionally consist of an odd number of flowers—five carnations, three tulips, seven chrysanthemums. That is, unless you’re bringing them to a friend or relative’s grave, in which case the number must always be even. Heaven help you if you accidentally give the object of your affection a dozen roses; she’ll think you’re making a statement about the future of your relationship.

“Ah," some joker will object, “but what about a deck of cards? Aren’t there 52 cards in a deck?" Yes, but how many in each suit? Thirteen. Not only odd, but another prime number.

For some inexplicable reason, even numbers are simply destined to be the dull yeomen of the numbering system, relegated to mundane lists, organizational structures or moralistic prohibitions. The Ten Commandments. The Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List. The 12 months of the year, the four seasons. A dozen eggs. The 50 states with their 100 senators. Yawn. The Seven Deadly Sins are more fun.

Even if the evens somehow ever managed to even the score, the odds would no doubt find a way to win. They’re like that: born one-uppers.

Mr. Opelka is a musical-theater composer-lyricist.

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