From “One Goat” to “The Number One”

We didn’t always have numbers—we had to invent them first. Here’s how the birth of math changed everything.

Anthropological studies all over the globe have confirmed that in the most primitive cultures, numbers as abstract entities have no meaning at all.

In other words, you can talk about one tree, two bananas or three goats, but the words “one,” “two” and “three” are just adjectival modifiers, used in the exact same way we use modifiers like “large” and “round.”

Ask a person in one of these cultures to draw a representation of the concept of “three,” and this person will draw you three trees or three goats: The number exists strictly as at attribute of the thing described.

Asking the person to “just draw a three” sounds as nonsensical to them as a request to “just draw a round.” The person can draw a round shape, but has no way to represent the abstract quality of roundness without reference to some object, real or imagined, that is round.

And that’s where things stood until very recently.

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The Lure of the Abyss

What’s so fascinating about the dark?

The word “abyss” may be one of the oldest words still in use. We can trace its roots with certainty back to the ancient Greek “abyssos,” and possibly back to the Sumerian “abzu,” which would make this word, at the very least, 6,000 years old.

In all those millennia, its meaning has changed very little.

And our desire to plunge into it remains as strong as ever.

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