In search of the perfect number

February 1, 2007

Numbers can mean many different things to many different people, and are used for many different purposes.

For example, I have a three-page chart of numbers in my computer. At first glance, the numbers are meaningless, but upon closer examination, they are the keys to unlocking a completely new dimension in space, affectionately known as cyberspace.

These numbers are the password entry codes to all of the electronic journals, specialty search engines and members-only Web sites to which I subscribe. Without these numbers, valuable time-saving information could not be accessed. These password numbers have replaced my hand that turns the doorknob, unlocking a virtual world of electronic knowledge.

These numbers are very important. They allow me to edit an international cosmetic dermatology journal based in London, typeset in Boston and printed in China, all from my home in North Carolina. Without these numbers, my ability to communicate across the oceans would be lost. These numbers have replaced my voice and verbal speech.

But, wait - I have still more numbers. I have a Social Security number. I keep this number hidden also. It is my identity for the federal government. It tells them who I am, when I was born, where I live, how many dependents I have, how much money I made last year, what I paid in taxes and the value of my Social Security fund.

It must be protected or criminals looking to assume my name can steal my identity. My Social Security number has replaced my body to those who keep track of my finances. I am no longer 5 feet, 8 inches tall, brunette and hazel-eyed. I am a combination of nine numbers to those who know me well.

No, I am not done; I have other numbers. These numbers are also secretly hidden in the depths of my wallet. These numbers represent all the money earned and not yet spent. They are the numbers to my bank account.

There is a bank routing number, there is my account number and there is a check number. Each of these numbers can be used to determine my net financial worth or allow me to make purchases around the world.

These numbers have replaced my outward appearance of financial success. No longer do I need to enter a store well-dressed, with expensive jewelry, to receive good service. I can just download my bank account number to an on-line shopping service and they will provide any goods up to the amount indicated on my bank balance.

Last week, I proudly added a new national provider number to my collection. Could this be the perfect number? It is replacing my UPIN and other insurance provider numbers that I have safely protected for the past 20 some years. I was very excited about receiving this new perfect number, until I realized the other numerical implications of the changeover.

I must now submit my insurance claim forms with this new provider number, which should be just a simple change of a few digits. But no. This new number has caused me great mathematical grief. I must now upgrade my medical software because my old system cannot handle the new number.

And my old UNIX computer operating system will not support the new medical software. And my old computer chip will not run the new UNIX operating system.

So I now have a new software password that I use to access a site where I can communicate via e-mail with my software provider, who uses my Social Security number to identify who I am so they can obtain my bank account number to withdraw a substantial sum to allow me to use my new national provider number.

In short, I am still searching for the perfect number.

Zoe Diana Draelos, M.D. Clinical associate professor of dermatology, Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C.