VOLUME 17 #2

Current cover


Dr. Tom Fernsler
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson
Thomas Fernsler

As luck would have it, this is a bad year for triskaidekaphobics. Those who fear the number 13 are often especially superstitious of Friday the 13ths, and 2009 has three of them—the most possible in a calendar year.

You may already have noticed the ones that occurred in February and March, but you might not have realized that another is heading our way in November.

One person who hasn’t been surprised is UD’s Dr. 13. Also known as Thomas Fernsler, the associate policy scientist in the University’s Mathematics & Science Education Resource Center (MSERC) has a long-term relationship with the number that’s the focus of so much superstition.

“I know more than probably anybody really wants to know about it,” Fernsler says. His fascination with 13 translates into a teaching tool for kids when he visits elementary and middle school classrooms and shows students how math can be used to look for patterns and coincidences.

For instance, a year like 2009 with a triple set of Fridays falling on the 13th typically comes around only once every 11 years. And yet, Fernsler notes, the 13th day of the month is more likely to fall on a Friday than any other day of the week.

His own interest in the number was triggered by an earlier year in which three months featured Friday the 13ths. It was in 1987, he says, that he first noticed the three-peat.

“I thought, that seems like a lot,” he recalls. “Then, I started reading everything I could about the subject.” One thing he learned was that every year contains at least one Friday the 13th and that the triple occurrence would happen again in 1998 and then in 2009.

Some consider the day spooky, others silly, and for horror film fans it’s superb.

Fernsler says that not only is the number 13 often considered unlucky, but Friday also has a reputation
as a day of bad luck. It was the day Christ was

crucified and historically has been the day reserved for capital executions, he says.

Meanwhile, separate from the day of the week, the number 13 has a reputation all its own. Triskaidekaphobics have a connection with some prominent historical figures, Fernsler says; Napoleon, J. Paul Getty, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt all feared 13.

Fernsler himself holds the opposing viewpoint. He finds 13 fascinating and has spent more than 20 years investigating and speaking publicly about this one number.

He works with public school teachers in Delaware through MSERC, a center in the College of Education and Public Policy that helps educators implement new curriculum content and performance standards in their classrooms. By appearing as Dr. 13, Fernsler says he has an opportunity to spread the word that, indeed, math can be enjoyable.

“This is a fun thing for me,” he has 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.”

MSERC, in partnership with the Delaware Mathematics Coalition, offers a variety of professional development opportunities for public school teachers in the state. It also is a resource and an information center for math and science education activities, where teachers can borrow manipulatives and supplementary text materials.

Some of the center’s recent projects have focused on providing additional training for teachers of special-needs students and on addressing the problem of effective instruction for students at risk of failure in middle- and high-school math.

For more information about MSERC, visit www.udel.edu/mserc.


If you're not superstitious, maybe you should be" says Thomas Fernsler, aka Dr. 13. "Eighty-seven percent of all the people in the world are superstitious about something. The other 13 percent are liars." Here are som facts Fernsler provides about the number 13.

1. The number suffers from its position after 12, which numerologists consider a complete number, encompassing the number of months in a year, signs of the zodiac, gods of Olympus, labors of Hercules, tribes of Israel, apostles of Jesus, days of Christmas and eggs in a dozen.

2. The first person to die in a car accident was killed in New York City on Sept. 13, 1899.

3. The British Navy is notoriously afraid of Friday the 13th. Nonetheless, it built a ship named Friday the 13th. On its maiden voyage, the vessel left dock on a Friday the 13th and was never heard from again.

4. The ill-fated Apollo 13 launched at 13:13 CST on 4/11/70. The sum of the date’s digits is 13. The explosion that crippled the spacecraft occurred on April 13.

5. Many hospitals have no room 13. Some tall buildings have no 13th floor. The numbers on the rooms and elevators jump from 12 to 14.

6. Quarterback Dan Marino wore No. 13 throughout his career with the Miami Dolphins. Marino is said to be the best quarterback who never won a Super Bowl.

7. Butch Cassidy was born on Friday, April 13, 1866.

8. President Franklin D. Roosevelt would not travel on the 13th day of any month and would never host 13 guests at a meal.

9. Superstitious diners in Paris can hire a quatorzieme, or professional 14th guest.

10. Woodrow Wilson considered 13 his lucky number, but he may have been wrong. The first sitting president to leave the country, Wilson arrived in Normandy, France, on Friday, Dec. 13, 1918. He returned from Europe with a treaty he couldn’t get Congress to sign. He toured the U.S. to rally support for the treaty and, while traveling, suffered a near-fatal stroke.

11. The seals on the back of a dollar bill include 13 steps on the pyramid, 13 stars above the eagle’s head, 13 war arrows in the eagle’s claw and 13 leaves on the olive branch.

12. Fidel Castro was born on Friday, Aug. 13, 1926.

13. Mark Twain once was the 13th guest at a dinner party. A friend warned him not to go. “It was bad luck,” Twain later told the friend. “They only had food for 12.”



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