We spend a lot of time in school mathematics learning how to work with numbers, but what are they? What is a number and how can we construct our collection of these very abstract things that we use every day in conversation and planning?
We use them along with arithmetic like `times` and `+` to help us describe and understand many properties of the world we observe around us. An astonishing variety of very different quantities we measure behave like numbers and have important properties derived using arithmetic. In physics we measure distance, time, mass and electrical charge and from them calculate properties like area, volume, speed, acceleration, force, pressure, temperature, energy and momentum to build a model of the way physical things interact. Not only science and technology but also design, business, planning and management rely on mathematical models to use and understand the systems they are engaged with.
Essentially numbers are part of understanding, describing and predicting how things behave.
The view of numbers described here is rather more formal than is usual in school, but it can be a helpful way to think about these things for some students. There are several different approaches to this kind of exploration of what lies behind mathematics. Here we consider numbers as a mathematical abstraction, a way of describing and working with both quantities and the order of things. We count and measure things, and we use algebra to reason about those things using numbers. Some of the words I will use here are defined and explained first. The ideas are more important than the words, but you will need to know some of the words to understand the explanations, or the questions you could be asked — and to communicate about these ideas.
commutative means you can swap the order, that is: `qquad2times3=3times2`.
It works for `times` and for `+` (these, strictly, only have a meaning for pairs of numbers)
but `-` and `div` are not commutative:
`quad 2-3 quad`is the negative of`quad 3-2 quad`and
`quad 2div3 quad`is the reciprocal of`quad 3div2`
associative means you can group addition however you want: `qquad(2+3)+4 = 2+(3+4)`.
This applies to `times` as well, together these rules mean that you can rearrange `+` or `times` operations.
If you have `-` or `div` then it is not so simple, they are not commutative.
It does not work when operations `times` and `+` are mixed together: `qquad(2+3)times4 ne 2+(3times4)`.
This means we need to make up a rule to tell us how to do something like `4+6times5^2`…
Order of operations in arithmetic:
do the brackets first; then any indices; then multiply and divide; then finally plus and minus.
distributive tells how `+` and `times` work together, `quad 2times(3+4)=(2times3)+(2times4)=14`. This looks much neater in our algebra notation, where we do not use the `times` symbol.
Saying that counting numbers are closed under addition means that whenever you add two counting numbers the result is also a counting number. If we want numbers to be “closed under division” we need to include fractions as well. Then if we want numbers to be “closed under subtraction” we need our numbers to include zero and the negative numbers. Understanding ‘zero’ as a number, and the particular problems this brings up, was difficult. It was the last part of this puzzle to be solved, thousands of years after fractions and negatives were widely used.
The collection of numbers found by starting with one, then adding, then dividing, then subtracting we call the rational numbers. The Hindu mathematicians put these ideas together in a formal, mathematical way during the time europeans call the Dark Ages, from about 650AD. Their anaysis was soon translated into Arabic, later the Islamic mathematics was translated and published in Europe. The modern symbols for the ten digits are originally from the Hindu written script of that time.
This is a rather important idea, we only just touch on it a little in high school — but mathematicians keep creating new kinds of entities like these to talk about new kinds of models of things that we observe in the world around us. We develop the algebras that work with these new collections … what we are learning now is number algebra, and we look at set algebra also, manipulating sets and their elements using operations including union and intersection with relations like in. At school we also explore vector algebra.
We can start by deciding that “one is a number”
… now let’s make some more!
We learn how to count.
We give the name two to the next number after one, three to the next number after two and make up a way of giving names to every ‘next’ number. For example after ninety nine we call the next number one hundred. So we end up with an endless list of number-names, in a fixed order.
I will call this first collection of named numbers the Counting Numbers. Sometimes we call them Natural Numbers.
Here I am going to use some words that I explained above …
Fractions (that is: division and ratio) transform our number system from counting distinct things into one able to measure continuous properties like length, time, weight or probability.
This is a very big shift, we start to use this new and very different kind of number in primary school, but it takes a few years to start to really understand that difference.
These properties, these ‘facts’ about numbers, are in the right hand column in the more formal, abstract representation here.
We use these rules to build our number algebra.
Mathematicians extend the idea of number, and apply it in all sorts of practical or abstract models and explorations. One very important example is described here.
When describing numbers above we saw that dividing by zero was not possible, it did not make sense. Yet in other cases like that we pressed on, we made new numbers to answer the questions the old ones could not and so made our collections of numbers more complete. We cannot find any solution to \(\ x^2=-1\ \) in the Real Numbers, so we name a new number that is the solution and call it \(\ \rm i\). It is not a Real Number of course but we find that a whole new kind of number emerges. We call them Complex Numbers and find they do behave very nicely as numbers, following all the rules we talked about here. We also discover many areas where they are very useful. So perhaps we should simply define a new number, call it \(\large\infty\) and extend our number system even further. The problem is that it does not play by the number rules. If we include it as a number we lose much of what makes numbers so useful and powerful.
This is an ancient problem, discussed here. The ways we deal with it are very important and we look at some of them in school.