Funny Numbers

During the century between about 600 BCE to 500 BCE, the first school of Greek philosophy flourished in Ionia. This, arguably, is the first historical record of philosophy as a reasoned attempt to explain things without recourse to the gods or out-and-out magic. But where on earth was Ionia? Wherever it was it’s now long gone. Wikipedia, of course, supplies an answer. If one sails east from the body of Greece for around 150 miles, passing many islands in the Aegean Sea, one reaches the mainland of what is now Turkey. Along this coast at about the same latitude as the north coast of the Peloponnesus (37.7 degrees N) one finds the island of Samos, a mile or so from the mainland; and just to the north is a long peninsula poking west which in ancient times held the city-state of Ionia. Wikipedia tells us that this city-state, along with many others along the coast nearby formed the Ionian League, which in those days, was an influential part of ancient Greece, allying with Athens and contributing heavily, later on, to the defeat of the Persians when they tried to conquer Greece. One can look at Google Earth and zoom in on these islands and in particular on Samos, seeing what is now likely a tourist destination with beaches and an interesting, rocky, green interior. On the coast to the east and somewhat south of Samos was the large city of Miletus, home to Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus and the rest of the Ionian philosophers. At around 570 BCE on the Island of Samos Pythagoras was born. Nothing Pythagoras possibly might have written has survived, but his life and influence became the stuff of conflicting myths interspersed with more plausible history. His father was supposedly a merchant and sailed around the Mediterranean. Legend has it that Pythagoras traveled to Egypt, was captured in a war with Babylonia and while imprisoned there picked up much of the mathematical lore of Babylon, especially in its more mystical aspects. Later freed, he came home to Samos, but after a few years had some kind of falling out with its rulers and left, sailing past Greece to Croton on the foot of Italy which in those days was part of a greater Greek hegemony. There he founded a cult whose secret mystic knowledge included some genuine mathematics such as how musical harmony depended on the length of a plucked string and the proof of the Pythagorean theorem, a result apparently known to the Babylonians for a thousand years previously, but possibly never before proved. Pythagoras was said to have magic powers, could be at two places simultaneously, and had a thigh of pure gold. This latter “fact” is mentioned in passing by Aristotle who lived 150 years later and is celebrated in lines from the Yeats poem, Among School Children:

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays

Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;

Solider Aristotle played the taws

Upon the bottom of a king of kings;

World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras

Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings

What a star sang and careless Muses heard:


Yeats finishes the stanza with one more line summing up the significance of these great thinkers: “Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.” Although one may doubt the golden thigh, quite possibly Pythagoras did have a birthmark on his leg.

I became interested in Ionia and then curious about its history and significance because I recently wondered what kind of notation the Greeks had for numbers. Was their notation like Roman numerals or something else? I found an internet link, which explained that the “Ionian” system displaced an earlier “Attic” notation throughout Greece, and then went on to explain the Ionian system. In the old days when a classic education was part of every educated person’s knowledge, this would be completely clear as an explanation. Although I am old enough to have had inflicted upon me three years of Latin in high school, since then I had been exposed to no systematic knowledge of the classical world so was entirely ignorant of Ionia, or at least of its location. I had heard of the Ionian philosophers and had dismissed their philosophy as being of no importance as indeed is the case, EXCEPT for their invention of the whole idea of philosophy itself. And, of course, without the rationalism of philosophy, it is indeed arguable that there would never have been the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century in the West. (Perhaps that revolution was premature without similar advances in human governance and will yet lead to disaster beyond imagining in our remaining lifetimes. Yet we are now stuck with it and might as well celebrate.)

The Ionian numbering system uses Greek letters for numerals from 1 to 9, then uses further letters for 10, 20, 30 through 90, and more letters yet for 100, 200, 300, etc. The total number of symbols is 27, quite a brain full. The important point about this notation along with that of the Egyptian, Attic, Roman and other ancient Western systems is that position within a string of numerals has no significance except for that of relative position with Roman numerals. This relative positioning helps by reducing the number of symbols needed in a numeric notation, but is a dead end compared to an absolute meaning for position which we will go into below. The lack of meaning for position in a string of digits is similar to written words where the pattern of letters within a word has significance but not the place of a letter within the word, except for things like capitalizing the first letter or putting a punctuation mark after the last. As an example of the Ionian system, consider the number 304 which would be τδ, τ being the symbol for 300 and δ being 4. There is no need for zero, and, in fact, these could be written in reverse order δτ and carry the same meaning. In thinking about this fact and the significance of rational numbers in the Greek system I came to understand some of the long history with the sparks of genius that led in India to OUR numbers. In comparison with the old systems ours is incredibly powerful but with some complexity to it. I can see how with unenlightened methods of teaching, trying to learn it by rote can lead to early math revulsion and anxiety rather than to an appreciation of its remarkable beauty, economy and power.

In the ancient Western systems there is no decimal point and nothing corresponding to the way we write decimal fractions to the right of the decimal point. What we call rational numbers (fractions) were to Pythagoras and the Greeks all there was. They were “numbers”, period, and “obviously” any quantity whatever could be expressed using them. Pythagoras died around 495 BCE, but his cult lived on. Sometime during the next hundred years, one of his followers disproved the “obvious”, showing that no “number” could express the square root of 2. This quantity, √2, by the Pythagorean theorem, is the hypotenuse of a right triangle whose legs are of length 1, so it certainly has a definite length, and is thus a quantity but to the Greeks was not a “number”. Apparently, this shocking fact about root 2 was kept secret by the Pythagoreans, but was supposedly betrayed by Hippasus, one of them. Or perhaps it was Hippasus who discovered the irrationality. Myth has it that he was drowned (either by accident or deliberately) for his impiety towards the gods. The proof of the irrationality of root 2 is quite simple, nowadays, using easy algebra and Aristotelian logic. If a and b are integers, assume a/b = √2. We may further assume that a and b have no common factor, because we may remove them all, if any. Squaring and rearranging, we get a²/2 = b². Since b is an integer, a²/2 must also be an integer, and thus “a” itself is divisible by 2. Substituting 2c for a in the last equation and then rearranging, we find that b is also divisible by 2. This contradicts our assumption that a and b shared no common factor. Now we apply Aristotelian logic, whose key property is the “law of the excluded middle”: if a proposition is false, its contrary is necessarily true, there is no “weaseling” out. In this case where √2 is either a fraction or isn’t, Aristotelian logic applies, which proves that a/b can’t be √2. The kind of proof we have used here is called “proof by contradiction”. Assume something and prove it false. Then by the law of the excluded middle, the contrary of what we assumed must be true. In the early twentieth century, a small coterie of mathematicians, called “intuitionists”, arose who distrusted proof by contradiction. Mathematics had become so complex during the nineteenth century that these folks suspected that there might, after all, be a way of “weaseling” out of the excluded middle. In that case only direct proofs could be trusted. The intuitionist idea did not sit well with most mathematicians who were quite happy with one of their favorite weapons.

Getting back to the Greeks and the fifth century BCE one realizes that after discovering the puzzling character of √2, the Pythagoreans were relatively helpless, in part because of inadequacies in their number notation. I haven’t tried to research when and how progress was made in resolving their conundrum during the 25 centuries since Hippasus lived and died, but WE are not helpless and with the help of our marvelous number system and a spreadsheet such as Excel, we can show how the Greeks could have possibly found some relief from their dilemma. The answer comes by way of what are called Pythagorean Triplets, three integers like 3,4,5 which satisfy the Pythagorean Law. With 3,4,5 one has 3² + 4² = 5². Other triplets are 8,15,17 and 5,12,13. There is a simple way of finding these triplets. Consider two integers p and q where q is larger than p, where if p is even, q is odd (or vice-versa) and where p and q have no common factor. Then let f = q² + p², d = q² – p², and e = 2pq. One finds that d² + e² = f². Some examples: p = 1, q = 2 leads to 3,4,5; p = 2, q = 3 leads to 5,12,13. These triplets have a geometrical meaning in that there exist right triangles who sides have lengths whose ratios are Pythagorean triplets. Now consider p = 2, q = 5 which leads to the triplet 20,21,29. If we consider a right triangle with these lengths, we notice that the sides 20 and 21 are pretty close to each other in length, so that the shape of the triangle is almost the same as one with sides 1,1 and hypotenuse √2. We can infer that 29/21 should be less than √2 and 29/20 should be greater than √2. Furthermore, if we double the triangle to 40,42,58, and note that 41 lies halfway between 42 and 40, the ratio 58/41 should be pretty darn close to √2. We can check our suspicion about 58/41 by using a spreadsheet and find that the 58/41 is 1.41463 to 5 places, while √2 to 5 places is 1.41421. The difference is 0.00042. The approximation 58/41 is off by 42 parts in 100,000 or 0.042%. The ancient Greeks had no way of doing what we have just done; but they could have squared 58 and 41 to see if the square of 58 was about twice the square of 41. What they would have found is that 58² is 3364 while 2 X 41² is 3362, so the fraction 58/41 is indeed a darn good approximation. Would the Greeks have been satisfied? Almost certainly not. In those days Idealism reigned, as it still does in modern mathematics. What is demanded is an exact answer, not an approximation.

While there is no exact fraction equal to √2, we can find fractions that get closer, closer and forever closer. Start by noticing that a 3,4,5 triangle has legs 3,4 which though not as close in length as 20, 21, are only 1 apart. Double the 3,4,5 triangle to 6,8,10 and consider an “average” leg of 7 relative to the hypotenuse of 10. The fraction 10/7 = 1.428 to 3 places while √2 = 1.414. So, 10/7 is off by only 1.4%, remarkably close. Furthermore, squaring 10 and 7, one obtains 100, 49 while 2 = 100/50. The Pythagoreans could easily have found this approximation and might have been impressed though certainly not satisfied.

I discovered these results about a month or so ago when I began to play with an Excel spread sheet. Playing with numbers for me is relaxing and fun; and is a pure game whether or not I find anything of interest. I suspect that this kind of “playing” is how “real” mathematicians do find genuinely interesting results, and if lucky, may come up with something worthy of a Fields prize, equivalent in mathematics to a Nobel prize in other fields. While my playing is pretty much innocent of any significance, it is still fun, throws some light on the ancient Greek dilemma, and for those of you still reading, shows how a sophisticated idea from modern mathematics is simple enough to be easily understood.

With spreadsheet in hand what I wondered was this: p,q = 1,2 and p,q = 2,5 lead to approximations of √2 via Pythagorean triplets. Are there other p,q’s that lead to even better approximations? To find such I adopted the most powerful method in all of mathematics: trial and error. With a spreadsheet it is easy to try many p,q’s and I found that p = 5, q = 12 led to another, even better, approximation, off by 1 part in 100,000. With 3 p,q’s in hand I could refine my guesswork and soon came up with p = 12, q = 29. I noticed that in the sequence 1,2,5,12,29,… successive pairs gave increasingly better p,q’s. This was an “aha” moment and led to a question. Could I find a rule and extend this sequence indefinitely?

In my life there is a long history of trying to find a rule for sequences of numbers. In elementary school at Hanahauoli, a private school in the Makiki area of Honolulu, I learned elementary arithmetic fairly easily, but found it profoundly uninteresting if not quite boring. Seventh grade at Punahou was not much better, but was interrupted part way through the year by the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941. The Punahou campus was taken over by the Army Corps of Engineers and our class relocated to an open pavilion on the University of Hawaii campus in lower Manoa Valley. I mostly remember enjoying games of everyone trying to tackle whoever could grab and run with a football even if I was one of the smaller children in the class. Desks were brought in and we had classes in groups while the rain poured down outside the pavilion. Probably, it was during this year that we began to learn how fractions could be expressed as decimals. In the eighth grade we moved into an actual building on the main part of the University campus and had Miss Hall as our math teacher. The math was still pretty boring, but Miss Hall was an inspiring teacher, one of those legendary types with a fierce aspect, but a heart of gold. We learned how to extract square roots, a process I could actually enjoy, and Miss Hall told us about the fascinating things we would learn as we progressed in math. There would be two years of algebra, geometry, trigonometry and if we progressed through all of these, the magic of “calculus”. It was the first time I had heard the word and, of course, I had no idea of what it might be about, but I began to find math interesting. In the ninth grade we moved back to the Punahou campus and our algebra teacher was Mr. Slade, the school principal, who had decided to get back to teaching for a year. At first, we were all put off a bit by having the fearsome principal as a teacher, but we all learned quickly that Mr. Slade was actually a gentle person and a gifted teacher. As we learned the manipulations of algebra and how to solve “word problems”, Mr. Slade would, fairly often, write a list of numbers on the board and ask us to find a formula for the sequence. I thoroughly enjoyed this exercise and learned to take differences or even second differences of pairs in a sequence. If the second differences were all the same, the expression would be a quadratic and could easily be found by trial and error. Mr. Slade also tried to make us appreciate the power of algebra by explaining what was meant by the word “abstraction”. I recall that I didn’t have the slightest understanding of what he was driving at, but my intuition could easily deal with an actual abstraction without understanding the general idea: that in place of concrete numbers we were using symbols which could stand for any number. Later when I did move on to calculus which involves another step up in abstraction, I at first had difficulty in the notation f(x), called a “function” of x, an abstract notation for any formula; or indeed a representation of a mapping that could occur without a formula. I soon got this idea straight and had little trouble later with a next step of abstraction to the idea used in quantum mechanics of an abstract “operator” that changes one function into another.

Getting back to the sequence 1,2,5,12,29,… I quickly found that taking differences didn’t work; the differences never seemed to get much smaller because the sequence turns out to have an exponential character. I soon discovered, however, using the spreadsheet that quotients worked: take 2/1, 5/2, 12/5, 29/12, all of which become more and more similar. Then multiplying 29 by the last quotient, I got 70.08. Since 29 was odd, I needed an even number for the next q so 70 looked good and indeed I confirmed that the triplet resulting from 29, 70 was 4059, 4060, 5741 with an estimate for √2 that was off by only 1 part in a 100 million. After 70 I found the next few members of the sequence, 169, 408, 985. The multiplier to try for the next member seemed to be closing in on 2.4142 or 1 + √2. At this point I stopped short of trying for a proof of that possibility, both because I am lazy and because the possible result seemed uninteresting. What is interesting is that the sequence of p,q’s goes on forever and that approximations for √2 by using the resulting triplets will converge on √2 as a limit. The ideas of a sequence converging to a limit was only rigorously defined in the 19th century. Possibly it might have provided satisfaction to the ancient Greeks. Instead, the idea of irrational numbers that were beyond fractions became clear only with the invention by the Hindu’s in India of our place based numerical notation and the number 0.

Place based number notation was developed separately in several places, in ancient Babylon, in the Maya civilization of Central America, in China and in India. A place based system with a base of 10 is the one we now use. Somewhere in one’s education one has learned about the 1’s column just to the left of a decimal point, then the 10’s column, the 100’s column and so forth. When the ancient Hindu’s and the other civilizations began to develop the idea of a place based system, there was no concept of zero. Presumably the thought was the idea that symbols should stand for something. Why would one possibly need a symbol that stood for nothing? So, one would begin with symbols 1 through 9 and designate 10 by ”1·”. The dot “·” is called a “place holder”. It has no meaning as a numeral, serving instead as a kind of punctuation mark which shows that one has “10”, not 1. Using the place holder in the example above of Ionian numbers, the τδ would be 3·4, the dot holding the 10’s place open. The story with “place holders” is that the Babylonians and Mayans never went beyond, but the Hindu’s gradually realized the dot could have a numerical meaning within its own right and “0” was discovered (invented?). Recently on September 13 or 14th, 2017, there was a flurry of reports that carbon dating of an ancient Indian document, the Bakhshali manuscript revealed that some of its birch bark pages were 500 years older than previously estimated, dating to a time between 224 – 383 AD. The place holder symbol occurring ubiquitously in the manuscript was called shunya-bindu in the ancient Sanskrit, translated in the Wikipedia article about the manuscript as “the dot of the empty place”. (Note that in Buddhism shunyata refers to the “great emptiness” a mystic concept which we might take as the profound absence of being logically prior to the “big bang”) A readable reference to the recent discovery is According to the Wikipedia article the Bakhshali manuscript is full of mathematics including algebraic equations and negative numbers in the form of debts. As a habitual skeptic I wondered when I first heard about the new dating whether Indian mathematicians with their brilliant intuition hadn’t immediately realized the numerical meaning of their place holder. Probably they did not. An easy way to see the necessity of zero as a number is to consider negative numbers as they join to the positives. In thinking and teaching about math I believe that using concrete examples is the best road leading to an abstract understanding. The example of debts is a compelling example of this. At first one might consider one’s debts as a list of positive numbers, amounts owed. One would also have another list of positive numbers, one’s assets, amounts owned. The idea might then occur of putting the two lists together, using “-“ signs in front of the debts. As income comes in one’s worth goes, for example, -3, then -2, -1. Then what? Before going positive, there is a time when one owes nothing and has nothing. The number 0 signifies this time before the next increment of income sends one’s worth to 1. The combined list would then be …, -3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3, … . Doing arithmetic, using properly extended arithmetic rules, when one wants to combine various sources of debt and income becomes completely consistent, but only because 0 was used.

If the above seems as if I’m belaboring the obvious, let me then ask you why when considering dates, the next year after 1 BCE is not 0, but 1 AD? Our dating system was made up during an early time before we had adopted “0” in the West. Historians have to subtract 1 when calculating intervals in years between BCE and AD and centuries end in hundreds, not 99’s. This example is a good one for showing that if one gets locked in to a convention, it becomes difficult if not impossible to change. I was quietly amused at the outcry as Y2K, the year 2000 came along with many insistent voices pointing out the ignorance of we who considered the 21st century to have begun. The idea of zero is not obvious and I hope I’ve shown in considering the Pythagorean’s and their dilemma with square roots, just how crippled one is trying to get along without it.

2 thoughts on “Funny Numbers

  1. Always a good read – but always a bit beyond me!! Don’t stop writing it!

    I just bought a book for Sherman’s Christmas present: “The Physics of Time” by Richard A. Muller. I don’t think I’ll finish it my Christmas but I’m really enjoying the first part: questioning what is ‘now’. How do you define it? Apparently Einstein and Aristotle were both puzzled. What is your definition?

    Happy Holidays to you and Sue. Lillian


  2. I always enjoy your blogs! Mathematics, numbers, I do find them interesting and this blog esp. Why is it that when I tell people I loved algebra, geometry, they are surprised that a women would enjoy numbers?
    Sorry it took me so long to get to read your writings. Crazy busy times, but now my days have slowed down to where I like them and enjoying the moment.


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