#16 – A (Very) Brief History of Numbers

5 minute read

At school, I was not interested in maths as a subject, I was not enticed into the world of numbers by my teachers who also seemed bored by the subject. But there were certain tasks dotted in amongst the mundane, that piqued my interest: When I was asked to find patterns within number sequences, turn shapes around in my head and unfold them onto flat planes, these were tasks that engaged me. It’s this arm of mathematics, the one that seems to link in with a creative mind, that I connect most with.

I have never taken the time to properly sit and think about numbers. My initial reaction is that my relationship with numbers is shallow, reduced to counting, date keeping, to recording of ownership and accumulation. The unquestioned acceptance of numbers as the building blocks of our society and as the gauge by which we value things, even ourselves, seems like a forceful imposition on our psyche. But at the same time, numbers are so fundamental that it is hardly surprising we take them for granted.

At School, we were taught very little about the origins of numbers and that may be one reason for the lack of passion I felt for the study of numbers and maths; they had no back story to engage with. Part of the aim of this edition is to deepen my relationship with numerals and so I took myself back to school, not to relearn arithmetic, but to strengthen my relationship with numbers by learning from whence our numerical system sprang.

I was immediately engaged by the story. I learned that our current numerical system originated in India, travelling along the silk routes to Arabic countries (where they got their name “Arabic Numbers”), and finally making it from North Africa into Europe via Fibonacci in the 1200’s.

Humans in India were the first to create unique symbols for 1-9, they even “invented” the number 0. 

In years prior, many civilisations had simple numerical systems to count small amounts and to bring some numerical order to their societies,  for example the Sumerians developed mark making to keep track of ownership and became the worlds first accountants. Egyptian society, around 3000BC, was the first to use numbers as a system of measurement, rather than simply counting; with their sacred cubit they were able to create huge structures precisely aligned to the four directions, some theorise they also include measurements about the earth’s dimension built into their architecture. Graham Hancock does a great job of explaining this here

Jumping forward a few millennia, it was the Indian system that took numbers to the next level by allowing them to grow or shrink infinitely using the 0 and the place-value system.

For centuries, in Europe, we were stuck with rudimentary counting and Roman Numerals while the Indians were conceptualising nirvana, eternity and infinity. This helped them to create a numerical system that allowed for the counting of large numbers and in response allowed them to grasp grander ideas of space and time. By placing zeros on the end of their numbers, they were now able to count endlessly large and small numbers, and get a handle on the idea of the infinite and endless space.

They also invented some abstract concepts like a Rajju, to measure the immensity of the universe, it’s described as follows: “If a heavenly god were to go at a speed of a hundred thousand (pramāṇa) yojana (12-15 km) in an instant, for a period of six months, the distance described by him will be one rajju.” This feels like the first human inklings into the concept of the light year. From their developed use of number, they were able to understand that the earth was spinning on its axis, that it moves around the sun and even take a pop at the distance of the Earth from the Sun. Further reading is advised! 

Maybe I was taught this in school, maybe I wasn’t paying attention! How much more engaged would and nourished would my experience of numbers have been if I had been taught these things? Our school curriculums emphasise Europeans as light bearers of the astronomical age and masters of number, when it can be theorised that the Egyptians encoded the Earth’s dimensions into their pyramids millennia before and Indian astronomers knew of the Earth’s orbit of the sun 1000 years prior to Copernicus’ rudimentary doodles. 

Perhaps I was expecting too much from secondary school level maths and history! But this might also provide a good example of how we are caged by numbers, by our calendars, diaries and by out of date, incomplete, socially biased textbooks that stand to support the dogmatic views of modern scientists and historians who refuse to give credit to ancient cultures for their wisdom of the Earth and skies.

Thanks to Wake up screaming and the internet (another monster of numbers) I am able to continue to educate myself on such subjects, not only on a creative level, but on a more practical and historical level. To find deeper truths, to find people like Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake, who put forward theories that shake paradigms and can shift us into a state of questioning what we’re told, no matter how true and apparent the things seem. Such humans carrying out such investigations bring us closer to a state of conscious wakefulness.

It’s these things that I find endlessly satisfying about my endeavours within these pages. Each study is valuable to my mind and nourishing to my soul. Wake up screaming allows me to accumulate knowledge, depth and understanding through my own study and through the gathering and publication of other’s insights into such subjects; the contributors who really make each edition.

Which leads me to this month’s contributing artists who provide varied perspectives on matters relating to numbers and creativity. We have teachers, scientists, workshop leaders, artists, designers, poets and painters, each with their very own unique relationship with numbers and each with their own insights into the use of numbers in life, in art and as a means to unfolding our Being.

In this edition, our forward is from Geometrist Tom Bree who has spent 8 years studying the architecture and symbology within Wells Cathedral, the UK first gothic Cathedral, his article leads us nicely into a contribution from Glastonbury writer and Astrologer John Wadsworth who talks us through the synchronistic beauty of The Dance of Venus among other things. Kavitha Shivan presents her research on the underlying maths of the Kolam, chalk mandalas created on the streets of India. Julija Goyd talks about her project exploring Grapheme Synethesia, recognising numbers as having associated colours.

Theoretical physicist, Nadav Drukker, shows us his pottery inscribed with equations, Victoria Marchenkova introduces us to the Kabbalistic concept of 288 Holy Sparks, Nina valetova talks about her work with The Mobius Strip, Tatiana Garamond introduces her project the book of hours, dedicated to the counting of criminal injustices against women. Yvette Kaiser Smith talks about Numbers as Source of Abstraction, along with Keanu Arcadio who explores The body’s Dimension as Metaphysical Extension and Jane and Mandy talk to us about their workshops to connect people with the sacred shapes of the Dance of Venus. 

Serial contributors Richard Downes and JEMontclair provide the poetry and I delve into my own relationship with numbers in an attempt at deepening my relationship with digits. All this and much much more in this month’s edition of Wake up screaming. Please see the full contributors list above and below each article.