What Are Numbers Made Of?


To return to my second major theme: my Dearly Beloved told me that I must explain that trick where one adds up the digits of a number and finds out from that whether it’s divisible by 9. I wanted to anyway, but a request like that is irresistible. The answer can be given quickly — and several of my hopefully faithful readers did, in comments, last Friday — but I’d like to take the long way around because I do that and because it lets a lot of other interesting divisibility properties show themselves.

We use ten numerals and the place where we write them to express all the counting numbers out there. We put one of the numerals, such as `2′, in a place which denotes whether we mean to say two tens, or two hundreds, or two millions. That’s a clever tool, and not one inherent to the idea of numbers. We could as easily use different symbols for different magnitudes; the only familiar example of this (in the west) is Roman numerals, where we use I, X, C, and M for increasing powers of ten, and then notice we aren’t really quite sure what to do past M.

The Romans were not very sure either, and individual variations developed when someone found they needed to express an M of M very often. The system has fewer numerals, symbols representing numbers, than ours does, with V and L and D the only additional numerals reasonably common. By the Middle Ages some symbols were improvised to allow for extremely large numbers such as the hundred thousands, and some extra symbols were pulled in for numbers such as 7 or 40, but they have faded to the point of obscurity. This is a numbering system which runs out when the numbers get too large, which seems impossibly limited at first glance. But we haven’t changed much from these times: while we have a numbering system that can, in principle, work with arbitrarily big or tiny numbers, in practice we only use a small range of them. When we turn over arithmetic to computers, in fact, we accept numbering systems which have limits on how big (positive or negative) a number may be, or how close to zero one may work. We accept those limits because of their convenience and are only sometimes annoyed to find, for example, that the spreadsheet trying to calculate a bill has decided we want 0.9999999 of a penny.

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