The Mathematical Traveler: Exploring the Grand History of Numbers

The Mathematical Traveler: Exploring the Grand History of Numbers

The Mathematical Traveler: Exploring the Grand History of Numbers

The Mathematical Traveler: Exploring the Grand History of Numbers

Synopsis

The story of numbers is a rich, sweeping history that shows how our mathematical achievements contributed to the greatest innovations of civilization. Calvin Clawson, acclaimed author of Conquering Math Phobia, weaves a story of numbers that spans thousands of years. As Clawson so clearly shows, numbers are not only an intrinsic and essential thread in our modern lives, but have always been an integral part of the human psyche - knit into the very fabric of our identity as humans. Clawson travels back through time to the roots of the history of numbers. In exploring early human fascination with numbers, he unearths the clay beads, knotted ropes, and tablets used by our ancestors as counting tools. He then investigates how numeric symbols and concepts developed uniquely and independently in Meso-America, China, and Egypt. As he persuasively argues, the mathematical concepts that arose and flourished in the ancient world enabled the creation of architectural masterpieces as well as the establishment of vast trade networks. Continuing the journey, Clawson brings us to the elegant logic of numbers that soon came to distinguish itself as a discipline and the language of science. From the concepts of infinity contemplated by the Greeks to the complex numbers that are indispensable to scientists on the cutting edge of research today, Clawson breathes life and meaning into the history of great mathematical mysteries and problems. In this spirit of inquiry, he explores, in their times and places, the discovery of numbers that lie outside the province of counting, including irrational numbers, transcendentals, complex numbers, and the enormous transfinite numbers. The personalities and the creative feats surrounding each mathematical invention come alive vividly in Clawson's lucid prose. In this work of breathtaking scope, Clawson guides us through the wonders of numbers and illustrates their monumental impact on civilization.

Excerpt

This book is about numbers. However, it is not a book that addresses only formal mathematics. While it is true that mathematics is the study of numbers, the use of numbers is so interwoven with the fabric of human experience that to talk of all aspects of numbers is to delve into many of the very mysteries of human nature. While this book contains mathematics, it also invokes anthropology, biology, psychology, anatomy, history, and philosophy.

Human beings have been called "the tool-using apes," "the fire- using apes," and "the talking apes." However, it would be just as proper to call us "the counting apes." Numbers and counting permeate our culture. Try to imagine, if you will, our society without any numbers or counting. We are so attuned to numbers that we use them to measure every aspect of our lives. We mark where we live with street numbers. We call each other on the telephone with numbers. Our money is based on numbers, along with our calendars and clocks. When I woke up this morning, I turned over and looked at my digital clock. It was 6:45. I remembered today was the 17th, and that reminded me I had to pay a $110 car payment. While I ate breakfast, I listened to 97.3 on the radio: the stock market was up 14 points. Thus my day (and everyone else's) continued. We rely on numbers in order to function in our modern society.

The economy, our technology, and science all depend on our use of numbers, and this dependency is reflected in how early we introduce our children to numbers; one of the first things we teach them is how to count . . .

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