Fridays the 13th

Are you afraid of Friday the 13th? Here is my only Friday the 13th story.

It was Friday the 13th, and I was listening to the psychologist Joy Browne’s show. Joy asked her listeners to call in with stories of interesting things that happened to them on Friday the 13th. I wondered why I didn’t remember any stories about Friday the 13th.

At the end of her show, I went to pick up my mail, where I found a book kindly sent to me by Princeton University Press named Nonplussed!: Mathematical Proof of Implausible Ideas by Julian Havil. I opened this book to a random page, and it was Chapter 13. That was not such a big deal by itself, but in addition, Chapter 13 was titled “Friday the 13th”.

One of the things Julian Havil discussed in the chapter is how often the 13th of the month falls on different days of the week. You might remember from your elementary school education that the Gregorian calendar repeats an entire identical day-of-the-week cycle every 400 years. Hence, it is just a matter of calculation to check on which day of the week the 13th falls the most often.

Can you guess the answer? I am sure you can apply some meta-thinking and derive that there is one special day of the week on which the 13th most frequently falls. You might even guess by now that that day is Friday. Otherwise, why would I write this blog entry? Or what would Mr. Havil have to say in the whole chapter of the aforementioned book?

As we can see, this calculation increases the worry for people who suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia — the fear of Friday the 13th. The 13th falls on Friday more often than on any other day.

Should we be worried?

Mathematically, the difference between the number of Fridays the 13th and, say, Thursdays the 13th is so small that it can only be observed when we look at the 400 year lifetime of the Gregorian calendar. Many countries have yet to experience the full cycle of the Gregorian calendar. For example, Russia adopted the calendar only in the 20th century. Is this why I am not so very afraid?

On second thought, for people of my generation, who are unlikely to live until the year 2100, the situation is slightly different. In the years between 1901 and 2099 our calendar has a days-of-the-week cycle of 28 years. You can calculate and check that in the period of 28 years, the 13th falls on any day of the week with the same probability. Hence, in events happening around my life time, there is not much to worry about, because Friday is no more special than any other day.

On third thought, a particular individual might see more Fridays on the 13th in his lifetime depending on the exact date of his birth. In my own life up to today, Monday is the most frequently occurring 13th. Maybe that’s why I do not like Mondays.


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