Number Theory

A person dialling a number on an old rotary phoneWritten by: Johann Cardenas, 3rd Year Bioinformatics 

Photo by: Wesley Hilario on Unsplash

When I was a little child, my pre-Kindergarten teacher introduced us to the concept of phones. I was taught that they could be used to talk to other people by dialing different numbers. This lesson would prove to be a mistake. Being the curious student I was, I wanted to apply my newfound knowledge as soon as I got home by calling one of my friends. The only problem was that I didn’t know his phone number, and was also too impatient to wait until the next day to ask. I came up with a pretty logical solution for a four year old: call one phone number, hang up if my friend isn’t there, then change the phone number by a digit and repeat. I figured it would take the rest of the night (I didn’t quite grasp that there were 10^10 different combinations of phone numbers to consider), so I began my plan as soon as my parents left the room.

The most tricky part of my plan was choosing which phone number to start with. Do I start with 000-000-0000? Or do I start with a phone number I already know and go from there? I didn’t like the idea of starting with 000-000-0000, because even as a child I knew that that probably wouldn’t work as a real phone number. I figured that wasting my time calling a number that I knew wouldn’t pick up would make me look stupid, and I was better than that, so I went with the second option. The only problem with starting with a phone number I already knew was that I didn’t know any phone numbers. I don’t think you can blame me, because 10 digits is a lot for a kid. The only phone number that I could recall was a three-digit one that’s drilled into every child’s head at that age: 911.

I really contemplated whether or not I should start with 911. On one hand, I already knew that 911 wasn’t my friend’s phone number, and that the line should only be called when you’re in an emergency. On the other hand, it was getting late, and I really wanted to call my friend. My tiny brain with its undeveloped prefrontal cortex weighed the options and somehow determined that calling 911 just to see if my friend picks up was the most logical course of action. I fought against the part of me that knew that this was stupid, and called 911 on our home phone all by myself.

The call was short. As soon as the 911 operator asked me what my emergency was, I got scared and hung up, before even asking if my friend was on the line. After that stressful experience, I wasn’t in the mood for trying 912. Instead, I took a break to play with some toys, not bothering to tell my parents what I just did. Time passed, and I almost forgot that I called 911, before my family got a visit at our door. I was expecting my friend, so I was surprised to see there were two police officers. After my parents made it clear that there was no emergency, I explained the situation to everyone. I was worried that I would get arrested for my crimes, but luckily they left their child-sized handcuffs back at the precinct, so I was just given a stern talking to that 911 was for emergencies only, and they let me go free for another day.

That might have been another mistake. A few days after that experience, I wanted to try calling my friend again. Rather than ask for his number, I stuck with my previous plan which I grew quite attached to despite it failing spectacularly last time. In a bout of four-year-old logic that I cannot explain, I somehow came to the conclusion that I should start with calling 911 again. I think it might have been because I didn’t confirm it last time and hung up before I could ask if my friend was there, but I’m probably giving myself too much credit. Unsurprisingly, it ended exactly the same as the first time, except the officers found my antics much less cute.

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