The Invention of Numbers
WHAT HAPPENED 20,000 YEARS AGOAstronomers, the scientist who study the sky, tell us that our universe, with all its billions and billions of stars, was born in a tremendous explosion that they call the Big Bang, about 15 million years ago (that's 15 followed by nine zeros!). They also tell us that the sun and earth were born about 5 billion years ago. Recently, anthropologists- the scientists who study humankind- discovered evidence that we human beings appeared for the first time on the surface of the earth about 4 million years ago.As you can see, it all started a long, long time ago. Yet math was invented only about 20,000 years ago, the day some genius among our ancestors realized that three stars, three stones, three trees, and three children had something in common: the property of "three-ness"! To record this great discovery, this brightest of people held up three fingers or cut three notches on a tree branch with a sharp stone.Although we were not there to see it, I am quite sure that our bright ancestor got so excited at this discovery that he or she began counting everything, just as you did when you first discovered that you had one, than two, then three, four, and five fingers on each hand.Actually, our language gives us fairly good evidence that ou ancestors also counted on their fingers. The numbers from 0 to 9 are sometimes called "digits" in English, and the word "digit" comes from "digitus," the Latin word for finger. Whether numbers were "discovered" or "invented" is harder to say. I believe they were invented by people, as was the rest of mathematics, starting about 20,000 years ago.
ABSTRACTIONThe idea of numbers is an abstract idea, meaning a thought in our minds about something that may not even exist. For example, we can think of a green cow with five legs, although real cows only have four legs and are not green. As people kept inventing more and more mathematical ideas, math kept becoming more and more abstract and, at the same time, more and more useful. The trouble is that many of us are not very good at abstract thinking. We find abstractions of math difficult if not impossible to understand, and we end up hating mathematics.If any of my readers are among the "abstract math haters," I have good news for them. The idea of numbers may be abstract, but numbers are extremely useful because they represent very real things. We use mathematics so often, every day of our lives, that we could not live without it. Just think of this: could you buy anything at a store if you could not use numbers to count?Of course, as you already know, math goes beyond mere counting. You are living at a time when science influences every aspect of our lives. We could not fly without the mathematical science of aerodynamics needed to build airplanes; your doctor could not treat you when you are sick without the mathematics of chemistry to make pills; nor could you talk with your friends over the phone or look at a television without the mathematics of electronics. In short, whether we like it or not, you and I must use math all the time. We live better than our early ancestors because more and more math is being invented every day to make our lives healthier, easier, and more pleasant.
Mario Salvadori (Author)
Mario Salvadori, author of The Art of Construction, Why Buildings Stand Up, and many other books, was an internationally known architect, mathematician, and teacher whose career spanned more than 60 years. A longtime resident of New York City, Dr. Salvadori died in June, 1997.
Joseph P. Wright (Author)
Joseph P. Wright, a professor of applied mathematics at Columbia University, New York, lives in Westfield, New Jersey.