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The invention of numbers

The Forum

March 10, 2022

39 minutes

Try and imagine a world without numbers. Telling people how many siblings you have, counting your wages or organising to meet a friend at a certain time would all be much more difficult. If you’re reading this on a digital screen, even these words are produced through a series of zero and one symbols. We take them so much for granted yet some cultures don’t count and some languages don’t have the words or symbols for numbers. This programme looks at when and why humans first started start to count, where the symbols many of us use today originate from and when concepts like zero and infinity came about. Joining Bridget Kendall to explore the history of numbers and counting are anthropological linguist Caleb Everett from the University of Miami, writer and historian of mathematics Tomoko Kitagawa, and Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Warwick University in the UK, Ian Stewart. Photo: An abacus on a table.(CaoChunhai//Getty Images)

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