A world built on numbers
A new book by Keith Devlin explores how man’s mastery of numerals and equations made our civilization possible.
Try to imagine a day without numbers. Never mind a day, try to imagine getting through the first hour without numbers: no alarm clock, no time, no date, no TV or radio, no stock market report or sports results in the newspapers, no bank account to check. It’s not clear exactly where you are waking up either, for without numbers modern housing would not exist.
The fact is, our lives are totally dependent on numbers. You may not have “a head for figures,” but you certainly have a head full of figures. Most of the things you do each day depend on and are conditioned by numbers. Some of them are obvious, like the ones listed above; others govern our lives behind the scenes. The degree to which our modern society depends on numbers that are hidden from us was made clear by the worldwide financial meltdown in 2008, when over-confident reliance on the advanced mathematics of futures predictions and the credit market led to a total collapse of the global financial system.
How did we - as a species and as a society - become so familiar with and totally reliant on these abstractions our ancestors invented just a few thousand years ago? (Illustration: Kelsey Heinrichs)