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The Cover
February 16, 2005

Numbers in Color

Author Affiliations

The Cover Section Editor: M. Therese Southgate, MD, Senior Contributing Editor.

JAMA. 2005;293(7):777. doi:10.1001/jama.293.7.777

They are ubiquitous, like the air. They are all around us, yet we are seldom aware of them. We use them constantly: to count our change, to count our minutes, to fly our rockets. Bach needed them for his inventions, Shakespeare for his sonnets, Michelangelo for his David. Governments need them to count their citizens, families to count their offspring, corporations to set their profit margins. They are the skeleton of life, the stuff of art, of science, of commerce, and of daily intercourse: we call them numbers. They are as necessary as breathing. “Take away number in all things,” said the sixth-century Spanish scholar Isidore of Seville, “and all things perish. Take calculation from the world and all is enveloped in dark ignorance, nor can he who does not know the way to reckon be distinguished from the rest of the animals.” (Quoted in: Crosby AW. The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press; 1988.) To the 20th-century American painter Jasper Johns (1930-    ), it was these very qualities—the fact that they permeate every phase of life and yet for the most part escape awareness as breathing usually escapes awareness—that made numbers the ideal motif for his paintings.

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