“Many people throughout history seem to have had a fixation with the number 23. Is it truly a magical number? Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 4.0)
What’s the connection between basketball superstar Michael Jordan, Beat Generation novelist William Burroughs, comedian Harpo Marx and mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr.? The number 23.
But that’s not all. In the Bible, Numbers 23:23 contains the phrase "What hath God wrought," which happens to be the first message sent in code on the telegraph by Samuel Morse back in 1843. If you add up the four digits of 1967, the year that Nirvana co-founder Kurt Cobain was born, they come to 23 – which is also the sum of the four digits for 1994, the year in which he died. All of us humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes in our genetic makeup. And the medieval Catholic military order, the Knights Templar, had 23 grand masters during its existence.
A skeptic might ascribe all this to mere chance, but some people think there’s more to it. If you poke around the internet, you’ll discover thousands of web pages devoted to something called the "23 Enigma" — essentially, a belief that the number has some sort of magical or mystical significance and/or power, because of all the instances in which it occurs.
There’s even a Facebook page for "23rdians," as people who are fascinated with the number call themselves. It’s filled with posts containing the number, ranging from a picture of a restaurant check number 23 that was issued to table 23, to the music video for the 2013 hip-hop song "23" by Mike WiLL Made-It.
Did It Start With William Burroughs?
How did this all get started? According to Barnaby Rogerson’s 2013 compendium "Rogerson’s Book of Numbers: The Culture of Numbers – from 1,001 Nights to the Seven Wonders of the World," the 23 obsession started with Burroughs, famous for his strange flights of disturbing, hallucinogenic fantasy in novels such as "Naked Lunch." In Tangier in 1960, Burroughs claimed to have met a sea captain named Clark, who boasted that he’d never had an accident in 23 years. Later that day, his ship sank, killing him. That night, Burroughs supposedly heard a radio news story about a flight 23 that had crashed in Florida, also piloted by a captain Clark. (Aircraft accident records for 1960, however, don’t show any such crash, though perhaps Burroughs was thinking of the Flight 23 that was destroyed by a bomb in 1933.) From then on, Burroughs started keeping track of events that included the number 23, and years later published a short story entitled "23 Skidoo."
Burroughs passed along his fascination with 23 to his friend Robert Anton Wilson, and it figures prominently in the Illuminatus! trilogy, a series of cult novels that Wilson wrote with Robert Shea. The latter contains an assortment of 23 occurrences, ranging from 17th century Irish archbishop James Ussher’s belief that the world started on Oct. 23, 4004 BCE, to the fact that Harpo Marx’s birthday was Nov. 23, 1888. There’s also a mention of the I Ching’s hexagram 23, and Bonnie and Clyde’s death on May 23, 1934.
But they weren’t the only ones with a 23 fixation. The Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr., whose struggle to overcome mental illness is documented in Sylvia Nasar’s 2001 biography "A Beautiful Mind," once told a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology that 23 was his favorite prime number, and insisted that he had appeared on the cover of Life magazine, disguised as Pope John XXIII. Nash, oddly, died in a car accident on May 23, 2015, according to his profile on the Nobel website.
The 23 Enigma even was the subject of a 2007 movie, "The Number 23," in which a troubled man named Walter Sparrow, portrayed by Jim Carrey, becomes obsessed with a book — entitled, fittingly, "The Number 23: A Novel of Obsession" — and is convinced that it contains the key to his own past.
And then there’s Michael Jordan, who started wearing the number 23 in high school because it was as close as he could get to half of the number 45 worn by his older brother, Larry. LeBron James also has worn 23 as an homage to Jordan.
Is It All Just Coincidence?
So what’s this all really mean? It’s hard to say, though 3.29 percent of each year’s days has 23 in the date, so there’s a lot of opportunity for births, deaths, accidents and other memorable events to occur on those days. And as Daniel Gilbert explains in this 2010 New York Times article, there are plenty of other seemingly magic numbers. It could all be mere happenstance.
Or maybe it’s more. Some coincidences, after all, can be meaningful. Research indicates that people commonly interpret coincidences as signals to look for hidden causes, according to Dr. Bernard Beitman, a psychiatrist who is founder of the field of Coincidence Studies, and author of the book "Connecting With Coincidence: The New Science for Using Synchronicity and Serendipity in Your Life."
"A baby cries and the mother comes. Coincidence! Maybe there is a connection," Beitman explained in an email. "The baby learns that crying brings her mother to her. Some people overdo the search for explanation of coincidences and others underdo. I think you have to overdo and then analyze, since somewhere among those pebbles might be a gold nugget."
However, "when it comes to numbers like 23, I don’t know," he said.
But even Dr. Beitman, as it turns out, has a 23 connection. "Twenty-three was my football number and seemed to follow along with me for many years. It served as a comforter and supporter. And then disappeared."
Now That’s Interesting
Dr. Beitman notes that it’s possible for two things to be meaningfully related without a common cause. "Absolutely! That is the statisticians’ favorite approach to coincidences," he explained. "The two elements come together randomly and people then make up meaning. This black and white approach to explanation misses the gray in between. Sometimes low probability coincidences do have a common cause."