Numeracy: Periodic Table as Mnemonic Aid for Numeric Memorization

In my humble opinion, a competent financial data analyst should be endowed with phenomenal ability to retain numbers in mind. This, by the way, is never quite advertised that way to potential recruits. Numeracy is being generally outlined as ‘being good with numbers’ whatever that means when you have Excel and other tools. Perhaps my standards are a bit too high, but in my department, we have an accountant who can literally memorize six digit figures + decimals, he is a CPA and he’s not even considered phenomenal (he can memorize them for days/months, not just minutes.). Richard Feynman, in his “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman”  has a part about competing with a ‘Japanese man’ on quickness and precision of mental computation.

“… I  realized  something: he [Japanese man] doesn’t  know numbers.  With the abacus, you don’t have to memorize a lot of arithmetic combinations; all you have to  do is learn  how to  push the  little  beads up  and  down. You  don’t have  to memorize 9 + 7 = 16; you just know that when you add 9 you push a ten’s bead up and pull a one’s bead down. So we’re [Feynman] slower  at basic  arithmetic, but we know numbers… “

So Feynman – a physicist – definitely knew his numbers. By ‘knew’ I mean he deliberately committed them to memory. Here is some more:

“…What  happened  was  this: I  happened  to  know  three numbers – the logarithm  of 10  to the base e (needed to convert numbers  from  base 10 to base e), which is  2.3026 (so I knew that e to the 2.3 is very close to 10), and because of radioactivity (mean-life  and half-life), I knew the log of 2 to the base e, which  is .69315 (so I also knew that e to the .7  is  nearly equal to 2). I also knew e (to the 1), which is 2.71828…”

Some may point out that an example of Feynman is inappropriate – he was a prodigy, a rare individual, and taking his performance as a standard is not quite fair. Well, reading some more on the subject of memory, I found the following:

From Chapter XIV of “Memory, How to Develop, Train and Use it” by Atkinson

“…It is generally admitted by the best authorities that the memorizing of dates, figures, numbers, etc., is the most difficult of any of the phases of memory…””…Herschel [eminent astonomer] is said to have been able to remember all the details of intricate calculations in his astronomical computations, even to the figures of the fractions. It is said that he was able to perform the most intricate calculations mentally, without the use of pen or pencil, and then dictated to his assistant the entire details of the process, including the final results. Tycho Brahe, the astronomer, also possessed a similar memory. It is said that he rebelled at being compelled to refer to the printed tables of square roots and cube roots, and set to work to memorize the entire set of tables, which almost incredible task he accomplished in half day – this required memorizing over 75,000 figures, and their relations to each other…”

So, analysts, do you feel compelled to memorize numbers? Aha… get ready.

The pressures of the financial analyst job are enormous. Probably financial analysis places one of the harshest requirements on cognitive ability compared to many other professions. I understand doctors/pharmacists/lawyers (among others) need to remember a lot, but that is after years of schooling. In the analyst’s role, you’ll have to lock numbers (not words) in your mind often at a moment’s notice. Your boss may just slam you against some new dataset and then expect perfect memory of every detail after 20 minute exposure. If you happen to be a number cruncher in this competitive globalized economy – you better be a good one. Threats of outsourcing/offshoring are always out there, the economic situation is not improving – things are only getting worse. You don’t have to spend years in school to get this job, so employers see you as replaceable. You better be phenomenal or else…

So how can you improve yourself in the eyes of your employer? Memorize every detail of the data, but especially numbers. Strive to memorize numbers down to decimal points for better performance, just like physicists and astronomers of yore. It’s very painful – but it’s worth it (you need the job right?). You’ll see the results. And you’ll lose sleep and sanity. While there is a plenty of general information on memory improvement, I thought that effective memorization would require some kind of mapping between numbers (abstract entities) and something more easily relatable (words?). So I thought to use periodic table of elements since it covers from 0 to 99 (and actually beyond). Here it is:

Uranus circles ice,  (Ur C I) (92 6 53)

Cent flowers to gold (Ce F Au) (58 9 79)

Jelly licks poll (Ge Li Po) (32 3 84)

Smile good lime (Sm Gd Li) (62 64 3)

Need I go on? It’s a part of the decimal expansion of pi() !

So does it worth to memorize periodic table? It better be etched in your brain at an age of 10! Then every number can be chopped into groups of two, each group mapped to an element in the table and made into some kind of imaginary scene.

How long would it take to memorize periodic table? Quite some time, but what about Tycho Brahe and his 75,000 figures? Are you up to the challenge? Ha ha, you better be…


~ by Monsi.Terdex on April 26, 2013.

2 Responses to “Numeracy: Periodic Table as Mnemonic Aid for Numeric Memorization”

  1. This is an intriguing idea! I wish that I had known of a strategy like this when I was in school and actually had difficult things like this to memorize. I guess now I’m at the age where I can still apply it to things like driver’s license number or credit card number! Now, the catch is refreshing my memory on the periodic table. Maybe there are some good tricks to memorizing that as well!

    • Shaun,

      This is not the only one though. In by now classic “Memory Book” by Harry Lorayne, you’ll find many other tricks, though they’re not as useful for numeric memorization. The idea is to map every two-digit number to something that can be used to conjure up vivid imagery. In the process of memorization, try to steer away from abstract concepts – instead map numbers to something easily visualizable, colorful and weird.

      By the way, thanks for reading,


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