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Page last updated at 12:21 GMT, Monday, 7 April 2008 13:21 UK

Just what on earth is numerology?

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Is there a pattern in these numbers?

By Ruth Alexander
BBC Radio 4, More or Less

An otherwise entirely rational person might confess to having a lucky number or two, but why do some people base important decisions on the right numbers?

Most of us see maths as a science, but to some, numbers have hidden meanings that can be used to make decisions in matters as serious as recruiting staff.

When Samantha Roddick, the daughter of Bodyshop founder Anita Roddick, launched her business, she crunched numbers with her bank manager, her accountant - and her numerologist.

Eight is good for business... five is good for sales, PR and marketing
Sonia Ducie

"When I pulled the whole team together, I just got everybody's numerology done," she says, describing how she used numbers to organise her new staff into efficient working groups.

"And then you just look at the overall numbers and how they interact. Ones are very ambitious, hard-working, career-centric, money-driven, Threes are very creative, as are Sixes. Fives, they're very apt to a lot of change."

Numerologists believe the numbers one to nine each have a mystical meaning, and that if you add together the digits in a person's date of birth, the end result is a number which influences the path that person will take in life. They also believe the letters in the alphabet have corresponding numbers, so a person's name can be added up to produce a number with meaning as well.

Product launches

But how far can you take this?

"The reality is it should never affect your decision-making process that much," says Samantha Roddick.

"It is there just to inform you, not to direct you, because you don't really want to hire and fire based on someone's numerology - that would be ridiculous," she laughs.

Agyness Deyn
The spelling of Agyness Deyn's name is numerological

But possibly not unheard of.

The numerologist Samantha Roddick consulted is Sonia Ducie. She claims companies big and small contact her for help with product launches, rebranding and recruitment decisions.

"Somebody came to me last week for a new company name," Ducie says. "The product it was selling was something fun, so we had to look at the number three. It was also something very practical, so you've got the number four.

"And then we looked at the launch date, because you might have the best product but the timing is out," she says.

"So for example, take the date 26 May 2008. You look at the day number - two and a six is an eight - and eight is good for business. Then you add up the whole date, and get 41. Four plus one is five. Five is good for sales, PR and marketing."

Dead heat

People have even chosen their own names according to auspicious numbers. Model Agyness Deyn is believed to have chosen the unusual spelling of her name in conjunction with her mother using numerological principles.

Ducie claims she has helped a large publishing house recruit a new group managing director.

"They were down to the last two CVs. They'd interviewed both people three times, and they just couldn't make up their mind."

Personality number: Add up the numbers from the day you were born - used to determine what you need
Life path number: Add up whole of date of birth - what you need to do in life
Soul number: Adding up numbers derived from vowels in full name - used to find "gifts within soul"
Expression number: Adding up all numbers from all letters in name - sum of gifts and experiences to date

She said she drew up numerology charts for the two candidates and was asked lots of questions about their potential based on this information.

"And then of course the most important thing is timing because everything goes in nine-year cycles. We looked at when these two people were looking to join the company. People who tend to join in say the 7th, 8th or 9th years of a nine-year cycle might be inclined to change jobs again in another few years."

Did the publishers come to a decision?

"Oh yes," she says. "They really knew by the end of the conversation who they felt was the best choice."

One might ask why businesses normally concerned only with the hard numbers of profit and loss would go down this mystical course.

Marcus du Sautoy, a professor of mathematics at Oxford University, says numerology is a dirty word to mathematicians - as astrology is to astronomers.

Evolutionary programming

"But," he says, "in some sense it does capture a lot of what mathematics is about, which is trying to spot patterns and connections.

"I think humans are almost evolutionarily programmed to try to look for these patterns because that's how we navigate the world around us. So in the jungle if you see something with symmetry then it's likely to be an animal that either you can eat, or it's going to eat you."

And modern numerology does have its roots in the thinking of someone you'll remember from your geometry classes.

"Pythagoras certainly imbued certain numbers with a lot of mystical significance," Marcus du Sautoy says. "He thought 10, for example, was a very special number because of the way you can arrange 10 stones into a beautiful sort of equilateral triangle - one, two, three, four stones in each row."

But as an alternative way of making sense of a complicated world through numbers, numerology is ultimately flawed by that very complexity. People living in different cultures around the world attribute different meanings to numbers.

The number four, according to Western numerology, is associated with the four corners of the earth, home, stability. To the Chinese, it means death.

BBC Radio 4's More or Less is broadcast on Mondays at 1630 BST. You can download the podcast after the programme here or hear it on Radio 4's Listen Again site.

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