ET can never call home without getting the wrong number

Written by Klaus L E Kaiser PhD

Ever dialed a wrong number? I bet you did, just as I have on some occasions. What makes the internet swirl though is the fact that Tim Peake, presently residing in the International Space Station (ISS) high above the earth’s surface did so recently. tim peakeWhy should it be such an “un-earthly” event? Sooner or later, it happens to the best of us! 

As his excuse, Peake claims to have had a faulty phone book, due to incorrect “rounding” of the numbers in a spreadsheet of such.

The Phone Book

Time was when the local phone company delivered a (paper)-phone book every fall to you, free of charge, as part of your subscription to their service. In recent years, that service (I mean the phone book) has fallen into a state of neglect. No longer do you get the long-accustomed-to phone book.  Any hard-wired service may just go the way of the dodo-bird too. It’s all fancy-dancy-wireless now, no-one needs an old-fashioned phone book anymore, just use your smart-thing with the latest app and, voila, you are successfully directed to the one enterprise keenest to serve your (perceived) needs. It may not be what you were looking for but that’s beside the point.

You got directed to a place that (presumably) still exists, where the electrons say; it isn’t always the case.

Move On

As you may have experienced, the world moves on, all the time, without reverence to what your expectations may have been. Last year, or yesterday soon becomes the past. Newer (occasionally even better) things spring up, become entrenched and you might think that there never was a “former times.”

Now, with ever more people no longer using land lines with fixed area codes and phone numbers, the whole system of phone numbers has become somewhat problematic; finding the right number to call is the new challenge. What I find even more difficult is finding the FAX number of some people or organisations. They are even more hidden than many email addresses and only known to insiders or acknowledged contacts. This problem is even more pronounced with overseas connections. There, phone and FAX numbers often have different numbers of digits, often with leading zeros that may have to be omitted and other quirks.

But let’s get back to spreadsheets for a moment.


If you work with many millions of data entries, typical spreadsheets are not suitable; instead you need database format programs that allow not just millions but billions of lines. However, for smaller datasets with many entries per line, modern spreadsheets are superior data repositories. They allow not just common data searching but also filtering by unique parameters not available in typical data compilations, such as, for example color-coded entries. Of course, spreadsheets are mainly used to rapidly calculate simple mathematical functions like sums, averages and other statistics.

However, using spreadsheets for data compilations is also possible – if you know about and can prevent the possible pitfalls. Most of such potential problems can be overcome by adjusting the default settings accordingly. For example, common hyphens, used for legibility and area code delineation can be interpreted as “minus” signs, resulting in spurious numbers. Or when entering CAS (Chemical Abstracts Service) numbers as identifiers for chemicals, the default mechanism recognizes and converts them to date values; without any ability to convert back to the original entry.

A simple way to get around that problem is to set the cell content to “text” before entering the data. Using spreadsheets as phone number data file is great as long as you take some simple precautions.

Automation is Great – with Caution

Similar problems occur with other “auto-correction” features in other file types as well, especially when it comes to text. Unless exactly specified, abbreviations – written, or spoken into a speech recognition program – can be converted to the wrong text. Remember the book entry meant to read “black pepper?”  Or try to write an email in another language; what you wrote and what was then transmitted may have little semblance. Even correctly spelled text may be misunderstood and “corrected” to a different word resulting in text with an entirely different meaning than intended. 

Automation is great but always fraught with unforeseen errors. For many of my own purposes I find that the time and energy needed to weed out such errors rarely makes the automation features worthwhile. For me, they are more pain than gain.

In short, having the right number is important, not just if you call from outer space.

Dr. Klaus L.E. Kaiser — Bio and Archives