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The Mystery of 47

47 illustration

“To the uninitiated, 47 is a mystery. To knowledgeable Pomona Sagehens, 47 is dogma. To sociologists, 47 is a prime example of a minor piece of whimsy that somehow developed into a legend of mythical proportions...”
—Pomona Student Handbook, 1985-86

In 1964, a tongue-in-cheek student project to determine whether the number 47 appeared more often in nature than other random numbers turned into a wholesale 47 hunt that has continued to this day. After all, you can’t deny the evidence:

  • Pomona College is located at Exit 47 of the San Bernardino Freeway.
  • There are 47 pipes in the top row of the Lyman Hall organ.
  • At the time of Pomona’s first graduating class in 1894, there were 47 students enrolled.
  • The Bible credits Jesus with 47 miracles.
  • The Declaration of Independence has 47 sentences.
  • There are 47 strings on a concert harp.
  • In the freshman class that entered Pomona College in the year 2000, there were 47 valedictorians.
  • The tropics of Cancer and Capricorn are located 47 degrees apart.

Even Hollywood has gotten in on the act. From art films to sci-fi to Will Ferrell vehicles, Pomona’s enduring in-joke has slipped past countless millions of movie-goers and tube-watchers in recent years. On TV’s Lost, 47 people survive the plane crash. In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell keeps a collection of 47 G.I. Joes. This summer’s blockbuster reboot of Star Trek alludes to 47 Klingon vessels being destroyed. There is even a much-viewed YouTube spoof of Jim Carrey’s The Number 23, substituting—you guessed it--the No. 47.

It goes as far back as the The Absent-minded Professor (1961). The Disney comedy features a basketball game filmed at Pomona’s old Renwick Gym. The final score? 47-46.

The recent spate of number-dropping started in the ’90s in earlier incarnations of Star Trek. Joe Menosky ’79 was a writer for The Next Generation (and later Voyager and Deep Space Nine) when he started slipping 47s into the shows. A producer eventually got wind and shut down the underground effort. But 47 keeps popping up in all sorts of shows.

If Menosky has moved on, how come our secret number keeps landing bit parts time and again? Is our 47 tradition at risk of overexposure? There’s no getting a straight answer out of Tinseltown on this sort of stuff, so—in a playful spirit—we turned to graphic novel artist Andrew Mitchell ’89 in our Fall 2009 issue of Pomona College Magazine for a creative take on the mystery (page 22 of the PDF). You can also read about the original mathematical hunt in 1964 in an article from our Fall 2000 issue.