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5 Familiar Numbers and the Logic Behind Them

Given how digital the world has become, we are hardly bothered by having to deal with one string of numbers after the next: credit card numbers, social security numbers, IP addresses and so on. Do these numbers hold any meaning, or are they just random sequences in a database? Read on to find out.

1. Credit Card Numbers

The string of digits that make up credit card numbers have a distinct, if subtle, structure.  The first digit signifies which system it belongs to: 3 is for travel and entertainment cards like American Express, 4 is Visa, 5 is Mastercard, and 6 is Discover.  The rest of the credit card number is used differently by each company -- for Visa cards, digits 2 through 6 are a bank number, 7-12 or 7-15 are the account number, and either 13 or 16 is a check digit, a number that is the result of a  series of simple but generally secret computations with the other digits that helps verify the full number isn't fake.  In an AmEx card, digits three and four indicate the type of card and currency, 5-11 are the account number, 12-14 are the card number within the account and 15 is a check digit (AmEx card numbers are 15 instead of 16 digits).

2. Zip Codes

zipcode1Zip codes were invented by Robert Aurand Moon and by 1963 were widely used by the United States Postal Service. The five-digit number is a code for an exact location, with each successive digit indicating a more specific place. The first digit indicates a group of states; for example, a 1 directs mail to Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania. The next two indicate a sectional center facility -- a zip code beginning with 108 directs mail to the facility New Rochelle, NY. The last two digits represent a village or town near the facility or a location within a metropolitan area. Typically in a non-metropolitan area a city gets the first area code, and surrounding villages and towns receive zip codes in alphabetical order (for example, Glenmont, NY has 12077 and Gloversville, NY has 12078). And in case you were wondering, ZIP is an acronym that stands for Zone Improvement Plan. 

3. Telephone Numbers

rotaryEveryone's a little more familiar with telephone numbers -- there's country code, necessary if dialing internationally (1 is the United States), and area codes, which indicate a broad geographic area. The next three digits indicate a smaller area, and the last four are a random permutation.  The area code and first three digits of a phone number are referred to in the telephone business as NPA-NXX.  These numbers convey a unit of purchase for telephone companies, as they will generally buy one NPA-NXX, or one combination. The ownership reveals why cell providers are often so tetchy about carrying a number from one to another, or vice versa: you would be stealing a phone number from one company and giving it to another.

4. IP Addresses

tcpip_ip_addressIP addresses, at their most basic level, identify individual computers to the Internet. They are a series of four numbers punctuated by periods that look something like 255.143.68.1. Each of these numbers (such as 255 in the example) is referred to as an octet. Each octet can have a value between 0 and 255 (so if you see an IP address with any octet higher than 255, it's fake). Together the octets of an IP address contain information about the type of network and, to an extent, the location of a computer. The first octet, called the class, tells you the size of a network a computer is in. A Class A network has a first octet between 0 and 127 and can have over 16 million IP addresses; a Class B network has a first octet between 128 and 191 and have about 65,000 addresses; a Class C network, used for most homes, has a first octet of 192-223 and can have 254 addresses. There are also Class D and E networks with first octets of 224-255 that are used for more specialized purposes. Most IP trackers use a location database to determine where an IP address is coming from, so there is not a direct scheme for the other octets. However, due to the modern use of subnetworks within a network, IP addresses are often masked. Therefore, it is no longer directly possible to tell the type of network a computer hails from.

5. Social Security Numbers

sscardSocial Security numbers are nine-digit strings that most Americans are assigned at birth, and are generally used as an identifier as well as a qualifier for various kinds of insurance and income from the government.  The first three numbers tell where the person first applied for the card; if the card was applied for at birth and the mailing address used was also the residential address, the numbers tell the rough location of birth (doesn't apply to babies born during vacation in Panama, but in general this is true).  The next two digits are called the group number, and allow SSNs of the same area number to be broken into smaller groups.  They are assigned in the following order: odd numbers 01-09, evens 10-98, evens 02-08, odds 11-99.  The last four digits, the serial numbers, are assigned consecutively 0001-9999.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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