Photo: elevator buttons © Shane Adams via flickr.com CC BY 2.0
Last month I went to my favourite conference (the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution), and checked into the conference hotel. The desk clerk gave me room 1310, and I headed for the elevator and pressed the button for the 13th floor. And then I did a double-take. The 13th floor? I don’t remember ever staying on a 13th floor; in North America, at least, buildings usually hop from the 12th floor to the 14th with only a mysterious lacuna in between.
Nothing untoward happened to me on the 13th floor, of course. But my stay in room 1310 made me think about the 13-is-bad-luck superstition, and what it says about the human concepts of the universe. What kind of thinking is behind our usual no-13th-floor convention? First, we have to believe that the universe is constructed such that the 13th of something is disfavoured. Second, there has to be some agency (whether natural law or supernatural) omniscient and omnipotent enough to keep track of what things are the 13th of something (floors, days, whatever), and to punish us for being on those things. And third, that same omniscient and omnipotent agency has to be dumb enough to be hoodwinked by our labelling the 13th of something “14”.* Continue reading