In the first of an eight-part blog series 'The Invention of Numbers', Dexter Booth explains why the number system was constructed
The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. ‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asked.- Lewis Carrol, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’
Why numbers? Because they are the alpha and the omega of mathematics; the seed corn from which springs our entire ability to understand the workings of the universe around us. From the tick-tock of a simple pendulum to the formation of the stars in the firmament, without numbers we would comprehend nothing!
We are taught about whole numbers from an early age; we count in the cradle. As infants we progress into fractions and then into negative numbers as we move through our school years. We even meet the odd irrational number like pi or Euler's number or the square root of 2 if we are lucky but no-one ever tells us where these numbers come from. Oh yes, we are told about Pythagoras, the area of a circle and, possibly, natural logarithms but no-one ever talks about the numbers themselves. We then move on into College and people talk about imaginary numbers, the word itself giving the impression that they do not really exist – regardless of whether we understand what the existence of a number really means anyway. Then we dash into complex numbers and immediately confuse the word complex with complicated with the result that little is really understood about what is basically quite straightforward. Straightforward yet very important, standing as it does at the gates of mathematics through which all our understanding of the world around us is found. Like it or not, mathematics is at the root of all of our intellectual endeavours; it has taken us from the cave mouth to where we are today – walking on the moon and beyond and the aim of this blog is to expose you to the power of the inventive human mind as the very foundations of mathematics unfold before you.