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the history of numbers
Transcript of the history of numbers
The Development of Numbers When people are asked what the number system looks like, they will usually 'um' and 'ah' before saying that it looks like a line with the whole numbers strung out like pearls along a necklace. This point of view goes back a very long way. The natural numbers (those integers which are positive and non-zero) were used by people in the Stone Age for counting things like property and enemies. Zero was used as a number representing the state of not having something3. Negatives came along much later to allow debt collectors to work out how much they could extract4 from those suffering from an overload of zeroes. Elementary, my Dear Watson! People often think that this way of getting around awkward problems is cheating, and that it defines the answer in terms of itself. Mathematicians shrug these off by answering back: 'How do you define anything?' It's a simple trick but a necessary one. How can you define red without a red object? How can you define '1' without using '1 of something' to do so? It's not cheating; it's just how things are.