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And The Symbol Of The Year Is ...

Host Scott Simon talks to Weekend Edition Math Guy Keith Devlin about a new award being handed out at Stanford University. The winner is the percent sign, which appeared repeatedly in headlines in 2012, from Occupy Wall Street to the presidential campaign.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's awards season again with the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, the Oscars all coming up. There's also a brand-new prize this year, but don't look for Joan Rivers on the red carpet.

Our math guy, Keith Devlin, joins us now from studios of Stanford University, where he's also a professor. Keith, thanks very much for being back with us.

KEITH DEVLIN, BYLINE: Oh, nice to be with you again, Scott. And a Happy New Year to you.

SIMON: And Happy New Year to you, my friend. What's this new prize Stanford's giving out?

DEVLIN: It's the Symbol of the Year Award. It's awarded - for the first time, this year - by Stanford's Symbolic Systems program. And the winner is - da, da, da! The percentage sign.

SIMON: (SOUNDITE OF SIMON CLAPPING)

DEVLIN: (LAUGHTER)

SIMON: I'm standing, too, at the same time.

DEVLIN: I'm sure you are.

SIMON: But the percentage sign, not the @ sign that's in every email message?

DEVLIN: Here's what the rules said. It said, the symbol of the year need not be new to this year - that being 2012 - but should have achieved widespread cultural importance during the year. A symbol is both used and understood to represent a concept, object, location, event or linguistic unit.

So first of all, it doesn't have to be a written symbol. It could be something like a flag or a salute, or a person, or the NPR logo - anything that symbolizes anything else, would be a symbol. And the reason the percentage sign - which sort of seems boring, in a sense; it's an old sign - the reason that was voted number one, and here was the citation: For continued protest about the 99 percent and the 1 percent, to Mitt Romney's 47 percent remark, to the fiscal cliff debate; the percent sign appeared throughout 2012 on banners and in headlines. Its presence was a constant reminder that income, wealth distribution and tax brackets had become the main focus of U.S. politics. So there you are.

SIMON: Are there any runners-up for whom we should feel sorry?

DEVLIN: And of the 20 others that were submitted, the ones that came highest was that big stone thingy in Mexico; the Piedra del Sol that was discovered, I think, in the late 1800s.

SIMON: I'm sorry, did I just hear a Stanford professor say stone thingy?

(LAUGHTER)

DEVLIN: I don't know how you describe - I think that thing's about 25 tons and 12 foot in diameter. So it's a big thingy made out of stone, and that was chosen to represent the Mayan calendar. It actually doesn't describe it as we know it. It wasn't a calendar thing at all. CERN, the European organization for nuclear research - that's the symbol CERN - that was chosen in part because of the pursuit of the Higgs boson last year. And the other one that scored fairly highly was the euro sign, a symbol of European currency and what used to be a functional operation.

SIMON: So, speaking as an Englishman, what used to be. Yes. Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Keith Devlin, our math guy here on WEEKEND EDITION; a professor at Stanford University, speaking from their studios. Thanks so much for being with us, Keith.

DEVLIN: OK, my pleasure Scott, as always.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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