My eight-year-old daughter, a very conscientious student, was revising her times-tables for a test this morning. She actually got up ten minutes early (without an alarm) so that she could have extra time to prepare.
As she was working through them at the breakfast table, she commented on how much she loves the seven times table, and it reminded me of the peculiar relationship that I had with those numbers when she got to seven times seven.
I always found the tables of the odd numbers easier to remember, and some of the products easier than others. Six times seven I could work out easily but couldn't memorise. Seven times seven was . . . special.
When I heard my daughter saying it, my first reaction was:
"Surely she's too young for that number?"
It was as if there was some innate mystery or adult danger associated with forty-nine; a rite of passage like fresh coffee, reaching the age of consent, or learning to drive.
So much so that my second reaction was:
"Where the hell did that come from?"
Forty-nine was a special number for me, not just because it was easy to remember, but because it was part of that special group of numbers that can only be divided by themselves, 1 and their whole number square root. Rarer than primes, and so both stranger and more precious.
I had forgotten about the borderline numeromania that had arisen from my mother's obsession with my sisters and my learning of times-tables. If we were in the car, she would ask us continuously throughout the journey. At other times, she would shoot us a surprise multiplication. Sometimes from the next room, or the other end of the garden. I think some of that fixation rubbed off on me, though it has waned over the years.
Last night, my daughter burst into tears when I told her to get ready for bed. Because she was worried that she would not have enough time to revise her multiplications. I think she's lucky that she doesn't have a special relationship with these numbers. For her this is just another opportunity to learn something (in which she takes enormous pleasure) and to please her teacher (which she seems to want to do without any discrimination – she'll try to please any teacher, regardless).
I wonder how I will feel when she gets to molar mass and empirical formulae, to say nothing of simultaneous equations.