Reaction to “Numbers that Made the World, Pt. 1”

Well, I’m not going to try to convince you that this first part of the three-part series was very much about mathematics. But it certainly was about numbers, and it wasn’t about apples.

It was about numbers as symbols, and the differing symbolic functions of numbers in different cultures.

I’m a bit skeptical of something claimed implicitly in the program, that the numbers 1 and 2 are easily accessible to humans of all cultures as “me” and “you”, but we have to wait a while before culture catches up with numbers as big as 3.  I believe that the unspoken concepts of unity, self, and me, and the unspoken concepts of duality, otherness, and you, are more primitive than the number three, of course I believe that, but that’s not really a fair comparison.  Once a mind has made the leap necessary to recognize “two-ness” as a concept independent of what there are two of, that key step in having the number 2 as a thing-in-itself, I don’t think the coffee will get cold before that mind also recognizes “three”.

The program does give some interesting cultural trivia.  The connection between numbers and Hebrew letters and Judaism was intriguing, but left so much unsaid.  I certainly wasn’t expecting to learn why the Emperor of China used a yellow dragon as a symbol of his power, but I’m glad that I did.  And so on.  Caveat: I don’t know enough about any of the cultures mentioned to know whether these remarks are cultural insights or just caricatures, but I’m prepared to give the benefit of the doubt.

One quotation, used during the section on Indian mathematicians, brought a smile to my face.

There are jewels to be found hidden in the dust of calculations; all the sums we do are just patterns of an untamed wind.

If that doesn’t summarize what drives me to be a number theorist, to stare at Mathematica output in search of some insight into the distribution of prime numbers, I don’t know what does.  I chase that untamed wind.  Unfortunately no attribution is given in the program.  Anybody know where this comes from?

I was grateful for the section on the Hindu-Arabic numeral system (the one we actually use today).  I think too few people know the pedigree of .  They paid lip service to the fact that our number system uses place value; it would be hard to overestimate the significance of this fact.  Imagine multiplying 755 x 2341 in Roman numerals.  Nuf fsaid.  Also, no mention at all was made of zero, which is a loss.  Zero is of epic importance in this context; even if you never want to acknowledge zero as a number (as, for example, if you ony regard as numbers the things that come out of your mouth when you’re counting), you need a symbolic zero to make the place values work out right.

I realize that I might be being unduly harsh for this part of the series. So much of this program’s content can be put under the heading of numerology, and I have very little patience for numerology.  This is probably because I am a number theorist; I know enough “factual” things about the number 7 that I don’t have much interest in “made-up” things about the number 7.  The astronomers I know have similar feelings about astrology.  (I, who am not an astronomer, find the superstitions and beliefs of various cultures about the stars and planets, and their implications for terrestrial life and luck to be quite fascinating.)

The narrator of the series says that the two remaining parts will explore, among other things, the always-fascinating Pythagoras, as well as “the man” (there was more than one, of course, but I’m quoting) who introduced fractals to the world.  There’s a lot of meat there.  So let’s see where this goes, shall we?

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One Response to Reaction to “Numbers that Made the World, Pt. 1”

  1. […] Permalink: Reaction to “Numbers that Made the World, Pt. 1″ […]

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