The alphabet is one. 26 letters, no more. One order, that’s it.
The Beatles are another. John, Paul, George and then Ringo. The Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, The Supremes.
The astrological zodiac gets us to twelve, but I’m having a really difficult time finding a memorable set with more than that.
When we start talking about trees or stars or even colors, the list isn’t clearly finite. Anatomy or species don’t work either. There’s always one or a hundred more to add. And human lists like saints or countries are hard to put in a memorable order, same with the US states.
The Great Lakes are five, the planets are eight. I wonder where we find a list of 30 to 100 items. And no fair picking something in Latin or involving multiple dimensions of advanced math.
There must be some sort of human or cultural limit that makes the alphabet a natural exception to our desire for this sort of knowable set.
I know this has nothing to do with our regular programming, but I’d love your best riff on this. Here’s a simple form. I’ll publish some of the winners.
Here’s what I learned from your generous and thoughtful responses:
- In the US, a lot of people went with the 50 states. That’s partly because it’s such a foundational concept in our political mythology. It’s also more than 26, which few human sets seem to be. BUT, there’s no obvious order to the states, and the ones we invent aren’t particularly useful, except to remember all of them.
- On the other hand, the one I heard the most that fit the criteria was the periodic table. Here, the order is real. Atomic number doesn’t mess around. It says something about our science literacy (along with the anarchic way the elements were named) that most of us can’t name 100 or more elements. But the real insight for me is that this set wasn’t invented by humans. We discovered it, we didn’t invent it.
- And the other big insight was that perhaps I was looking in the wrong place. It may be that a well constructed popular song with interesting lyrics is the perfect example. There’s a finite list of words, they have to go in a certain order and it means something to us. I’d put the Cat in the Hat on this list as well.