Numbers are fucking awesome.

They’re everywhere around us, and form the foundation for every thing we interact with in our everyday lives. Without numbers, you and I are pretty much boned. Numbers are essential; lose them, and you and I are back in the cave finger painting with charcoal – which isn’t terribly awesome if you’re used to Fatboy Slim CDs, suspension bridges and digital wristwatches.

Kraftwerk – Numbers

Numbers and Communication

In episode four of his science history series Connections, James Burke tells us: “Without long-distance communication, the modern world would not function as it does.”  Telecommunications allow us to organise ourselves and exchange data over vast distances. Without numbers, there are no communications satellites, let alone any way to send useful information to us from those satellites that now doesn’t exist. Try plotting your location without numbers. I dare you. Go on, smartass.

Connections – Episode 4: Faith in Numbers (part 1)

Numbers are essential to data routing. Every mobile phone call, bank transaction and porn Youtube video that makes its way to you knows how to get to you and not some random in Nigeria does so because of complex combinations of strings of numbers identifying which peice of information is going where.

Numbers and Music

In 1967, Isaac Asimov wrote about musical notes:

It all begins with Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher who, about 525 BC, discovered that two or more strings, plucked together, made a combination of sounds that was pleasing to the ear, if the lengths of those strings were in the ratios of small whole numbers.

Bam! Numbers!

Also, Asimov could really pimp commas. He continues, frequencies in place of lengths of string:

For instance, if one frequency is just twice another, the notes blend perfectly in our ears.

If we take three notes together, then the harmony is particularly good if the frequencies are in the ratio of 4 to 5 to 6. This combination of notes is called the “major triad”.

Well, then, we now have four notes we can rely on to sound good in almost any combination, whether struck consecutively or simultaneously, and these we can label 4, 5, 6 and 8. As you see, 4, 5, 6 make up a major triad and 8 is twice 4.

Boards of Canada – Music is Math

It takes another page of Science, Numbers and I (the collection of Asimov essays from whence I steal this particular arrangement of comma-heavy words) just to get to a full octave of 4, 4½, 5, 5⅓, 6, 6⅔, 7½, 8. The whole piece is some dozen pages long and by the end one’s brain has been battered fairly thoroughly under a sweet sweet avalanche of numbers.

Numbers and Food

Ancient agriculture would have been impossible if we had no capability to keep track of… er, keep track of things. If you want to know how successful the planting has been, you need tax men to tally up how many pots of grain you’ve got and keep a record of it. You then need a caste of astrologer-priests to keep track of how many days after the solstice you planted that year, so you can figure out the best time to sow your crops.

Pointer Sisters – Pinball Number Count (DJ Food Re-Edit)

Yes, this does mean that if you want food, you have to have taxes. Shut up and deal with it.

Anyhow, you need a number system for this to work; tick marks on the end of bones only get you so far. You want to live in a city with other people, someone somewhere needs to be planning some complex group activities and tallying some rather large figures – and then documenting those facts and passing them on to some kind of central authority who works with even larger numbers.

I’d go on about numbers, but another section would take us to four headings, and four isn’t a prime number.  So, understandably, I’m a little uneasy about venturing further. Suffice to say that looking at numbers is an exercise that could go on for a while – yet if you can reach infinity through math tricks, then can anything really take up that much time?