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'Dr. 13' has no fear of Fridays

NEWARK, DE.--Dan Marino, one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the National Football League, wore No. 13 throughout his career with the powerhouse Miami Dolphins. Marino threw for an astounding 61,358 yards and 420 touchdowns, but he never won a Super Bowl.

Worse, when the team honored Marino by retiring his famed No. 13 jersey during a game Sept. 17, a south Florida downpour lashed the ceremony.

Certainly, Marino was not triskaidekaphobic. Maybe he should have been.

Triskaidekaphobia is a fear of the number 13, and it is a source of fascination to Thomas J. Fernsler, an associate policy scientist in the University of Delaware's Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center who, in the world of mathematics, is known as "Dr. 13."

Fernsler will address the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ Eastern regional conference in Philadelphia about the subject on—of all days—Friday, Oct. 13. He said he first was struck by the unusual power of the number 13 in 1987, which, of course, is 13 years ago.

"It was the first time I had noticed three Friday the 13ths in one year," Fernsler recalled. "I thought, that seems like a lot. Then, I started reading everything I could about the subject."
He found that from earliest times through this, the modern information age, the number 13 has had a special mystique. "It's the one superstition that doesn't seem to let go," Fernsler said. "This is the year 2000. Who's superstitious anymore? But, you'd be surprised how many people are."

Napoleon, J. Paul Getty, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were all practicing triskaidekaphobes, Fernsler said.

"FDR might have been our most superstitious president," Fernsler said. "He was scared to death of the number 13. When luncheon or dinner parties numbered 13, he would ask his secretary to join the guests to make an even 14."

That is a common fear, Fernsler said, adding that, in Paris, superstitious diners can hire a quatorzieme, or professional 14th guest.

Mark Twain once was the 13th guest at a dinner party, Fernsler said, and a friend told him not to go because it was bad luck. "It was bad luck," Twain later told the friend. "They only had food for 12."

Roosevelt's fears extended far beyond the dinner table, affecting even his travel arrangements. "If he was going to travel on the 13th, often he would make the conductor leave at 11:50 p.m. on the 12th or wait until the early hours of the 14th," Fernsler said. "He died on Thursday, April 12, 1945 — it was his final trip, and it was almost as if he said, I'm not leaving on the 13th."

President Woodrow Wilson tempted fate while leading a U.S. delegation to the peace talks following World War I. Fernsler said he was the first president to leave the country while holding office, and his ship entered the harbor at Brest on the Normandy coast on Friday, Dec. 13, 1918.

Wilson considered 13 his lucky number, Fernsler said, and, against the advice of the superstitious captain and crew, ordered that the ship be docked that day instead of waiting until morning.

Although Wilson was accorded a hero's welcome in Europe, he returned home to a Senate unwilling to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. That, in turn, led to the sinking of his dream of a League of Nations. Wilson then suffered a near fatal stroke while on a failed speaking tour to urge support for the treaty.

A more recent example is the nearly tragic flight of Apollo 13, which was brought to life in a movie directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks.

Fernsler said the screenwriters noted obvious references to the number, such as the mission number, the fact that liftoff was at 1313 hours CST and the fact that the explosion that crippled the spacecraft occurred on April 13. Two points they missed, he said, were the fact that the sum of the digits in the numeric launch date of 4-11-70 is 13 and that the rocket was fired from launch pad 39, the third multiple of 13.

Fernsler said 13 suffers from its position after 12, which numerologists consider a complete number. There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 tribes of Israel and 12 apostles of Jesus.

In exceeding 12 by one, Fernsler said, 13 "is just beyond completeness, and is, therefore, restless and squirmy."

People get particularly squirmy when 13 falls on a Friday, Fernsler said, because that day has a reputation as one of bad luck. It was the day Christ was crucified and historically has been the day reserved for capital executions.

Fernsler noted that every year contains at least one Friday the 13th. The most number of these days that can occur in any one calendar year is three; the last time that happened was 1998, and the next will be 2009.

Fernsler claims he is not superstitious, although his office includes a basketball uniform bearing the number 13. "I try to wear that number in rec league games," he said. "If 13 is taken, I wear 0 because that usually matches my contribution.

"This is a fun thing for me," he said of his work as Dr. 13. "It really grew out of what I tell the teachers I work with—let kids play and work with numbers. If you do that, it might be a spark to get them more interested in math and to be less anxious about it."

Fernsler works with teachers through UD’s Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center, which helps educators implement new curriculum content and performance standards in their classrooms

He has a long-standing interest in mathematics. "I've always been into math. When I was in fifth grade and Mrs. Clark gave me 70 multiplication problems, I said, 'Yeah, I'll do that!' I realize I am way in the minority."

By appearing as Dr. 13, Fernsler has an opportunity to spread the word that, indeed, math can be fun.

"I enjoy doing this, as long as people have an interest in it," he said, "and they seem to."

Contact: Neil Thomas: (302) 831-6408 nfttwo@udel.edu

Sept. 29, 2000