Category Archives: Numbers

Babylonian Numbers

In an October blog “Decimals,” I showed you how we use the decimal (base-10) number system to generate the natural numbers we use today in math. In the blog “Mayan Numbers,” I showed you how the ancient Mayan civilization created numbers using a vigesimal (base-20) number system. In today’s blog, we’ll visit another ancient culture and learn how the Babylonian civilization used a sexegesimal (base-60) number system to do math.

Babylonia existed from about 18th c. BC until the 6th c. BC. This nation existed in the southern region of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates River. Today, this area of the world is now part of Iraq.

The Babylonians used one of the earliest forms of written expression: the cuneiform script. They wrote in soft clay tablets using a wedge-shaped reed stylus. When the clay was hardened in the sun, the writing permanently became a part of the tablet.
They used just two symbols to define the 59 digits as follows:


The Babylonians wrote their numbers from right to left. The rightmost slot in any number has a multiple of 1. The multiplier for the next slots to the left of this column increased by a multiple of 60. The Babylonians defined their numbers by using one or more of the 59 digits from above. Although the Babylonians understood the concept of nothingness, they did not have a symbol for the digit or value of zero. They would leave a space or use a non-numeric placeholder to indicate that no digit was defined for a position within a number.

Now let’s use this knowledge to translate a Babylonian number (A).


We first translate the Babylonian digits into a Hindu-Arabic number and we multiply it by the multiplier associated with its position (B). We add the values of each position and come up with the value for the Babylonian number (C).

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Addition and the Ishango Bone

In today’s blog, we are going to start a steady and cumulative process of exploring the concepts and techniques of mathematics in an evolutionary way. You will soon realize that even the most basic concepts can be seen in different and interesting ways. As always, and whenever possible, I’ll point you to some interesting places, events and people in the history of mathematics.  Lets start with the concept of addition. Addition evolved out of a very fundamental desire to count and know the quantity of similar objects we have.

Suppose we begin with two sets of objects (1). Set A consists of six elements (blue discs) and Set B has three elements (green discs). These two sets have no elements in common. The intersection of sets A and B is the empty set. Thus, they are referred to as disjoint sets. The union of sets A and B consists of both the six blue discs and the three green discs. In the Hindu/Arabic number system, there are numbers that are used to represent the quantities of discs in each set (2). In this case, it is the numbers “6” and “3.” The union of two disjointed sets is a visual way of representing the sum of two numbers. The addition symbol (+) is used to represent the operation of addition in a mathematical expression or equation. The sum of these two numbers is equivalent to counting the number of blue and green discs in the union of two sets (3).  In this case, six plus three is equal to nine.  One should note that counting is nothing more than the repeated addition of 1 to generate a set of natural numbers.

In 1960, a Belgian geologist, Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt (1920-1998) was exploring an area of Africa near the headwaters of the Nile River at Lake Edwards, called Ishango. At the time, the area was part of the Belgian Congo. He discovered a large number of tools, artifacts, and human remains.  In the world of archeology, there have been numerous discoveries of prehistoric animal bones that have notches carved into them. These artifacts are generally known as tallies or tally sticks. Some of these notched bones have proven to be more interesting to the mathematical community than others. One of these interesting bones was discovered at Ishango by Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt . Today, this artifact is referred to as the Ishango bone.  It is considered the second oldest mathematical object. However, its exact purpose has yet to be determined.

The Ishango bone is currently on display at the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, Belgium.  There, you will find a Flash-based website on the Ishango archeological site, which will give you a detailed explanation of the bone’s markings and its possible uses. Explore this site and you will find out how far back the history of mathematics stretches.

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Mayan Numbers

In the previous blog, we looked at how the numbers we use in mathematics were formed using the decimal number system. In this system, we use multipliers of ten to define the positions for the number’s digits. There are other number systems that used multipliers of twenties instead of tens. This vigesimal number system was used by the Pre-Columbian Mayan civilization as their way of representing quantities.

The Mayans used the following three unique symbols to represent numbers: A seashell symbol Mayan seashell symbol for zero which is used to represent zero, a dot Mayan symbol for 1 unit, a dot used to represent one unit, and a stroke Mayan stroke symbol for 5 units used to represent five units. They used these symbols to represent the numbers 0-19 as follows:

The digits of the Mayan Number System

The vertical positions of the Mayan numbersThe Mayans wrote their numbers vertically. The bottom slot in any number has a multiplier of 1. The next slots above them increase by multiples of 20, as shown in the diagram below.  They Mayans defined numbers by placing one or more of the twenty digits from above in the appropriate slots.  Note that the Mayans used zero as a placeholder just like the Indians did in the Hindu-Arabic Number System (See “India & Zero” blog).

Lets use this information to decipher a mayan number (A).

We translate the symbol into a hindu-arabic number and we multiply it by the multiplier associated with its vertical position (B).  We add the values of each position and come up with the value of the Mayan number (C).  In this example, the Mayan number (A) has a value of 96,410.

A page from the Mayan Dresden CodexThere are only three undisputably authentic Maya codices in existence today. The only one of these three to contain mathematical symbols is the one referred to as the Dresden Codex. It is currently at the Saxon State Library (Sächsische Landesbibliothek) of Dresden, Germany. A high-quality high-resolution image of the codex is available at this website for you to explore. See examples of how the Mayans wrote down numbers and see if you can decipher them using what you learned in this blog.

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Today, we are going to take a closer look at the elements that make up the set of natural numbers. If you remember from a previous blog, this set represents all positive integers within the set of real numbers.

All real numbers (which include natural numbers) are made up of one or more digits. The digits we use in our modern numbering system are 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. Note that there are ten numbers that are made up of one digit (0-9). There are ninety two-digit numbers (10-99), and there are one thousand three-digit numbers (100-999). All real numbers can be expressed in this decimal notation, even fractions. This will be looked into in a future blog.

The position of the digits within a numeral is as important as the digits themselves. The numeral “476” is not the same as the numeral “674” even though both numerals use the same three digits: 4, 7, and 6. In order to understand why this is the case, we need to understand the decimal number system. I’ll show the structure of this system by illustrating the number “six hundred and seventy-four” in three different ways.

In this system, each position represents a multiplier used to determine the magnitude of the digit in its slot (A). The rightmost slot in any number has a multiplier of 1. The slot to its left represents a multiplier of 10. The third slot from the right represents a multiplier of 100. Theoretically, this can continue indefinitely.  Very large (or very small) multipliers can also be expressed using scientific notation.Each slot represents a different multiplier that is ten times more than the slot to the right.  Since all the multipliers in this system are multiples of ten, the decimal notation system is also referred to as a base-10 system. The arithmetic expression (B) is a way of expressing the relationship between the multipliers and its digits. The number (C) is a shorthand way of expressing this arithmetic expression.  There are other numerical systems that use a multiplier other than ten.  We’ll explore these systems and their practical applications in a future blog.

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India & Zero

Lets look at one piece of evidence cited in the history of zero. In order to find it, you will have to go to Gwalior, India, the site of an impressive late 15th c. medieval fort which occupies a plateau in the center of the city. On the eastern side of this plateau is a 9th century Hindu temple, the Chatarbjuj temple, which is carved out of one single chunk of stone. It is dedicated to Vishnu, but it is no longer an active site of worship for the Hindu faithful. Just inside the inner chamber, there is a dedication tablet. By accident, it records the oldest use of “0” in India, for which one can assign a definite date (876 AD).

You will find a more detailed and fascinating description of this site in an essay , “All for Nought,” written by Dr. Bill Casselman (University of British Columbia, Math Department) for the American Mathematical Society. You will see many numerical values on display in the temple inscriptions. These are the numbers as they appeared in the dedication tablet. The numbers 4 and 6 were not written in any of these values.

The essay shows that by 876 A. D. our current place-value system with a base of 10 had become part of popular culture in at least one region of India. including the concept of using zero as a placeholder for “nothing.”  There is a high degree of certainty that the decimal place value notation was invented and developed in India from the 1st to 5th century A.D. There were many number systems simultaneously being used by various cultures throughout Asia and Europe during that time. The knowledge of this system spread from India in a very indirect and complicated way to western Europe via Persian and Arabic mathematicians. Many refer to the decimal place value notation we use today as the Hindu-Arabic number system.

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Real Numbers (R)

Venn Diagram - Real Numbers

Necessity is truly the mother of invention. Throughout the history of mathematics, different types of numbers were invented to deal with a variety of  situations. Lets start our exploration of mathematical numbers by first identifying the different types of numbers we use. I am expressing the five different types of numbers visually in this Venn Diagram.

The first numbers to be invented in many cultures were counting numbers. It evolved out of a universal need to document how many objects we have in a particular situation. The related concept of addition developed for similar reasons. In mathematics, we call these counting numbers the set of natural numbers. This set is usually represented as {N}. The elements of {N} are {1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,…}.

When we are counting, we are adding objects together to find its quantity. But what if we were to remove objects from a group? The need to express the removal of objects lead to the creation of negative forms of natural numbers. The related concept of subtraction developed for similar reasons. We call this set negative addends. There is no letter of the alphabet that is commonly used to represent this set. The elements of this set are {-1,-2,-3,-4,-5,-6,-7,-8,-9,-10,….}.

When I have four objects in my hand and one person takes two objects and a second person takes two objects, how do I mathematically express the fact that I no longer have any objects in my hand? A numerical symbol was needed to represent “nothing.” We use the symbol called zero. This is a set that has only one element,  the symbol we use to represent “nothing,” {0}.  It is also an important placeholder used in the decimal notation system as well as expressing any numbers greater than 9.

You may have heard the term whole numbers used in math classes.  This set is usually represented as {W}.   The set {W} is nothing more than the union of the set of natural numbers {N} and the set zero {0}. The set of natural numbers {N} is a subset of {W}.  The set zero {0} is also a subset of {W}.
The elements of {W} are {0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,…}.

Another term commonly used in math is integers. This set is usually represented as {Z}. The set {Z} is the union of three sets: the set of natural numbers {N}, zero {0}, and the set of negative addends. Therefore, the elements of {Z} are
For the longest time, mathematicians believed that all numbers could be expressed as a fractions: the ratio of two numbers, like ¾. They referred to these numbers as rational numbers. This set is usually represented as {Q}. We will explore the concept of fractions in future blogs.  Even integers can be expressed as fractions (for example, 3=3/1, -5=-5/1). Therefore the set of integers {Z} is a subset of the set {Q}. The elements of {Q} are all numbers that can be written in the form m/n, where n ≠ 0.

Unfortunately, it was discovered that not all quantities could be expressed as a fraction. Due to the puzzling nature of these seemingly quirky numbers, they collectively became known as irrational numbers. The set is usually represented as {I}. The elements of {I} are all numbers that cannot be represented as a fraction. The value of  Pi (π), the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, is one such irrational number.

So these are the sets and partitions that make up the set of real numbers.  This set is usually represented as {R}.  All the numbers you will come across will be elements of one or more of these sets.  And they are all real numbers… well, almost all.  There are numbers called complex numbers which pop up in certain situations, but we’ll leave that for another blog… maybe.

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π (Pi)

The most recognizable constant  in mathematics is the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle. Today, we use the Greek symbol, π,  to represent this ratio. The existence of this constant has been known for a very long time.  It actually comes from nature, so it was always there, waiting for us to discover it.  The earliest textual evidence of this ratio dates back to the Babylonian and Egyptian civilizations.  One particular artifact fascinates me.  It consists of a list of eighty-four (84) practical problems encountered in administrative and building works.  It is known as the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, now in the British Museum. It does not explicitly state the value of the ratio.   Instead, one of the problems calculates the area of a circle as the square of eight-ninths of its diameter.  The resulting solution was 3.16.  Explore this fascinating artifact.   Learn how math was used to solve practical problems in the world of the ancient Egyptian civilization.

By the way,  the symbol, π, has been used in this mathematical sense for only the past 250 years.  But that’s a topic for another blog.

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