Numbers have a rich history. To the Ancient Greeks, 1 was not a number at all, but the origin of all the other numbers. They also thought that 37 was a colour. Today, we know that 1 is not only a number, it is also the loneliest number.
When they get bored or run out of research money, mathematicians make up whole new types of numbers! You may have heard of ‘imaginary’ numbers in school. These are numbers which only exist when someone tries to think about them, like ‘the number you first thought of’ in that famous old mathematical riddle. Other unusual sorts of numbers are ’round’ numbers, which only come in multiples of 10, ‘backwards’ numbers, which count downwards instead of upwards, and ‘wrong’ numbers. In the ‘wrong’ number system, 2 + 2 = 11!
Fermat’s Last Theorem was one of the most famous unsolved problems in all mathematics, until it was solved. But only four people in the whole world could follow the proof, and they all see each other at conferences and stuff, so as far as the rest of us are concerned they could be just making the whole thing up.
One evening, I held a cocktail party for my beautiful secretary, Lemma, and my two good friends and colleagues, Cal Culus and Dr X. Ponential. We swapped many mathematical anecdotes and drank rather a large quantity of Cal’s excellent vodkatinis. After a while, I noticed that Dr Ponential was dropping lit matches in my lap, one after the other. When I tried to raise my hands, I found that they had been tied to the arms of my chair while I had been distracted by the conversation.
“…three, four, five,” counted Dr Ponential.
“Hahahaha. Going to put this little anecdote in your stupid column, Numbor?” said Cal. “It’d go with all the other stories you swiped off me. Little prick.”
“Lemma! Help!” I cried.
“Count this, arsehole,” she said, making an obscene gesture with one hand while she slid the other over Cal’s shoulders.
“…ten, eleven, twelve,” continued Ponential.
How did I manage to escape from this predicament? (Answer at the bottom of the page.)
What are numbers really? Mathematicians believe that numbers are eternal and unchanging, like CDs, and that they all exist ‘out there’ somewhere – even the ones that no-one’s counted up to yet! But some philosophers and social scientists claim that mathematics is created by mathematicians and that it only really exists inside human brains. The trouble with this theory is that without mathematics, we’d have no technology or machines or medicine, and all these ‘so-called’ scientists would all be dying of measles while they drowned in floods of their own poo! So there!
(Answer to puzzle: Attentive readers will have quickly realised that, using my knowledge of topology, I was able to turn both of my arms inside out and slip them out through my own mouth, thus freeing myself from my bonds without needing to cut them!)