A number is a mathematical object used to count, measure, and label. The original examples are the natural numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and so forth.[1] A written symbol like "5" that represents a number is called a numeral. A numeral system is an organized way to write and manipulate this type of symbol, for example the Hindu–Arabic numeral system allows combinations of numerical digits like "5" and "0" to represent larger numbers like 50.[2] A numeral in linguistics can refer to a symbol like 5, the words or phrase that names a number, like "five hundred", or other words that mean a specific number, like "dozen". In addition to their use in counting and measuring, numerals are often used for labels (as with telephone numbers), for ordering (as with serial numbers), and for codes (as with ISBNs). In common usage, number may refer to a symbol, a word or phrase, or the mathematical object.

In mathematics, the notion of number has been extended over the centuries to include 0,[3] negative numbers,[4] rational numbers such as 2 and 2/3, real numbers[5] such as 2 and π, and complex numbers,[6] which extend the real numbers with a −1 (and its combinations with real numbers by addition and multiplication).[4] Calculations with numbers are done with arithmetical operations, the most familiar being addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and exponentiation. Their study or usage is called arithmetic. The same term may also refer to number theory, the study of the properties of numbers.

Besides their practical uses, numbers have cultural significance throughout the world.[7][8] For example, in Western society, the number 13 is regarded as unlucky, and "a million" may signify "a lot."[7] Though it is now regarded as pseudoscience, belief in a mystical significance of numbers, known as numerology, permeated ancient and medieval thought.[9] Numerology heavily influenced the development of Greek mathematics, stimulating the investigation of many problems in number theory which are still of interest today.[9]

During the 19th century, mathematicians began to develop many different abstractions which share certain properties of numbers and may be seen as extending the concept. Among the first were the hypercomplex numbers, which consist of various extensions or modifications of the complex number system. Today, number systems are considered important special examples of much more general categories such as rings and fields, and the application of the term "number" is a matter of convention, without fundamental significance.[10]



Numbers should be distinguished from numerals, the symbols used to represent numbers. The Egyptians invented the first ciphered numeral system, and the Greeks followed by mapping their counting numbers onto Ionian and Doric alphabets.[11] Roman numerals, a system that used combinations of letters from the Roman alphabet, remained dominant in Europe until the spread of the superior Hindu–Arabic numeral system around the late 14th century, and the Hindu–Arabic numeral system remains the most common system for representing numbers in the world today.[12] The key to the effectiveness of the system was the symbol for zero, which was developed by ancient Indian mathematicians around 500 AD.[12]

First use of numbers

Bones and other artifacts have been discovered with marks cut into them that many believe are tally marks.[13] These tally marks may have been used for counting elapsed time, such as numbers of days, lunar cycles or keeping records of quantities, such as of animals.

A tallying system has no concept of place value (as in modern decimal notation), which limits its representation of large numbers. Nonetheless tallying systems are considered the first kind of abstract numeral system.

The first known system with place value was the Mesopotamian base 60 system (ca. 3400 BC) and the earliest known base 10 system dates to 3100 BC in Egypt.[14]


The first known documented use of zero dates to AD 628, and appeared in the Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta, the main work of the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta. He treated 0 as a number and discussed operations involving it, including division. By this time (the 7th century) the concept had clearly reached Cambodia as Khmer numerals, and documentation shows the idea later spreading to China and the Islamic world.

The number 605 in Khmer numerals, from an inscription from 683 AD. Early use of zero as a decimal figure.

Brahmagupta's Brahmasphuṭasiddhanta is the first book that mentions zero as a number, hence Brahmagupta is usually considered the first to formulate the concept of zero. He gave rules of using zero with negative and positive numbers, such as 'Zero plus a positive number is a positive number, and a negative number plus zero is the negative number'. The Brahmasphutasiddhanta is the earliest known text to treat zero as a number in its own right, rather than as simply a placeholder digit in representing another number as was done by the Babylonians or as a symbol for a lack of quantity as was done by Ptolemy and the Romans.

The use of 0 as a number should be distinguished from its use as a placeholder numeral in place-value systems. Many ancient texts used 0. Babylonian and Egyptian texts used it. Egyptians used the word nfr to denote zero balance in double entry accounting. Indian texts used a Sanskrit word Shunye or shunya to refer to the concept of void. In mathematics texts this word often refers to the number zero.[15] In a similar vein, Pāṇini (5th century BC) used the null (zero) operator in the Ashtadhyayi, an early example of an algebraic grammar for the Sanskrit language (also see Pingala).

There are other uses of zero before Brahmagupta, though the documentation is not as complete as it is in the Brahmasphutasiddhanta.

Records show that the Ancient Greeks seemed unsure about the status of 0 as a number: they asked themselves "how can 'nothing' be something?" leading to interesting philosophical and, by the Medieval period, religious arguments about the nature and existence of 0 and the vacuum. The paradoxes of Zeno of Elea depend in part on the uncertain interpretation of 0. (The ancient Greeks even questioned whether 1 was a number.)

The late Olmec people of south-central Mexico began to use a symbol for zero, a shell glyph, in the New World, possibly by the 4th century BC but certainly by 40 BC, which became an integral part of Maya numerals and the Maya calendar. Mayan arithmetic used base 4 and base 5 written as base 20. Sanchez in 1961 reported a base 4, base 5 "finger" abacus.

By 130 AD, Ptolemy, influenced by Hipparchus and the Babylonians, was using a symbol for 0 (a small circle with a long overbar) within a sexagesimal numeral system otherwise using alphabetic Greek numerals. Because it was used alone, not as just a placeholder, this Hellenistic zero was the first documented use of a true zero in the Old World. In later Byzantine manuscripts of his Syntaxis Mathematica (Almagest), the Hellenistic zero had morphed into the Greek letter Omicron (otherwise meaning 70).

Another true zero was used in tables alongside Roman numerals by 525 (first known use by Dionysius Exiguus), but as a word, nulla meaning nothing, not as a symbol. When division produced 0 as a remainder, nihil, also meaning nothing, was used. These medieval zeros were used by all future medieval computists (calculators of Easter). An isolated use of their initial, N, was used in a table of Roman numerals by Bede or a colleague about 725, a true zero symbol.

Negative numbers

The abstract concept of negative numbers was recognized as early as 100–50 BC in China. The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art contains methods for finding the areas of figures; red rods were used to denote positive coefficients, black for negative.[16] The first reference in a Western work was in the 3rd century AD in Greece. Diophantus referred to the equation equivalent to 4x + 20 = 0 (the solution is negative) in Arithmetica, saying that the equation gave an absurd result.

During the 600s, negative numbers were in use in India to represent debts. Diophantus' previous reference was discussed more explicitly by Indian mathematician Brahmagupta, in Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta 628, who used negative numbers to produce the general form quadratic formula that remains in use today. However, in the 12th century in India, Bhaskara gives negative roots for quadratic equations but says the negative value "is in this case not to be taken, for it is inadequate; people do not approve of negative roots."

European mathematicians, for the most part, resisted the concept of negative numbers until the 17th century, although Fibonacci allowed negative solutions in financial problems where they could be interpreted as debts (chapter 13 of Liber Abaci, 1202) and later as losses (in Flos). At the same time, the Chinese were indicating negative numbers by drawing a diagonal stroke through the right-most non-zero digit of the corresponding positive number's numeral.[17] The first use of negative numbers in a European work was by Nicolas Chuquet during the 15th century. He used them as exponents, but referred to them as "absurd numbers".

As recently as the 18th century, it was common practice to ignore any negative results returned by equations on the assumption that they were meaningless, just as René Descartes did with negative solutions in a Cartesian coordinate system.

Rational numbers

It is likely that the concept of fractional numbers dates to prehistoric times. The Ancient Egyptians used their Egyptian fraction notation for rational numbers in mathematical texts such as the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus and the Kahun Papyrus. Classical Greek and Indian mathematicians made studies of the theory of rational numbers, as part of the general study of number theory. The best known of these is Euclid's Elements, dating to roughly 300  BC. Of the Indian texts, the most relevant is the Sthananga Sutra, which also covers number theory as part of a general study of mathematics.

The concept of decimal fractions is closely linked with decimal place-value notation; the two seem to have developed in tandem. For example, it is common for the Jain math sutra to include calculations of decimal-fraction approximations to pi or the square root of 2. Similarly, Babylonian math texts had always used sexagesimal (base 60) fractions with great frequency.

Irrational numbers

The earliest known use of irrational numbers was in the Indian Sulba Sutras composed between 800 and 500 BC.[18] The first existence proofs of irrational numbers is usually attributed to Pythagoras, more specifically to the Pythagorean Hippasus of Metapontum, who produced a (most likely geometrical) proof of the irrationality of the square root of 2. The story goes that Hippasus discovered irrational numbers when trying to represent the square root of 2 as a fraction. However, Pythagoras believed in the absoluteness of numbers, and could not accept the existence of irrational numbers. He could not disprove their existence through logic, but he could not accept irrational numbers, and so, allegedly and frequently reported, he sentenced Hippasus to death by drowning, to impede spreading of this disconcerting news.[19]

The 16th century brought final European acceptance of negative integral and fractional numbers. By the 17th  century, mathematicians generally used decimal fractions with modern notation. It was not, however, until the 19th  century that mathematicians separated irrationals into algebraic and transcendental parts, and once more undertook the scientific study of irrationals. It had remained almost dormant since Euclid. In 1872, the publication of the theories of Karl Weierstrass (by his pupil E. Kossak), Eduard Heine (Crelle, 74), Georg Cantor (Annalen, 5), and Richard Dedekind was brought about. In 1869, Charles Méray had taken the same point of departure as Heine, but the theory is generally referred to the year 1872. Weierstrass's method was completely set forth by Salvatore Pincherle (1880), and Dedekind's has received additional prominence through the author's later work (1888) and endorsement by Paul Tannery (1894). Weierstrass, Cantor, and Heine base their theories on infinite series, while Dedekind founds his on the idea of a cut (Schnitt) in the system of real numbers, separating all rational numbers into two groups having certain characteristic properties. The subject has received later contributions at the hands of Weierstrass, Kronecker (Crelle, 101), and Méray.

The search for roots of quintic and higher degree equations was an important development, the Abel–Ruffini theorem (Ruffini 1799, Abel 1824) showed that they could not be solved by radicals (formulas involving only arithmetical operations and roots). Hence it was necessary to consider the wider set of algebraic numbers (all solutions to polynomial equations). Galois (1832) linked polynomial equations to group theory giving rise to the field of Galois theory.

Continued fractions, closely related to irrational numbers (and due to Cataldi, 1613), received attention at the hands of Euler, and at the opening of the 19th century were brought into prominence through the writings of Joseph Louis Lagrange. Other noteworthy contributions have been made by Druckenmüller (1837), Kunze (1857), Lemke (1870), and Günther (1872). Ramus (1855) first connected the subject with determinants, resulting, with the subsequent contributions of Heine, Möbius, and Günther, in the theory of Kettenbruchdeterminanten.

Transcendental numbers and reals

The existence of transcendental numbers[20] was first established by Liouville (1844, 1851). Hermite proved in 1873 that e is transcendental and Lindemann proved in 1882 that π is transcendental. Finally, Cantor showed that the set of all real numbers is uncountably infinite but the set of all algebraic numbers is countably infinite, so there is an uncountably infinite number of transcendental numbers.

Infinity and infinitesimals

The earliest known conception of mathematical infinity appears in the Yajur Veda, an ancient Indian script, which at one point states, "If you remove a part from infinity or add a part to infinity, still what remains is infinity." Infinity was a popular topic of philosophical study among the Jain mathematicians c. 400 BC. They distinguished between five types of infinity: infinite in one and two directions, infinite in area, infinite everywhere, and infinite perpetually.

Aristotle defined the traditional Western notion of mathematical infinity. He distinguished between actual infinity and potential infinity—the general consensus being that only the latter had true value. Galileo Galilei's Two New Sciences discussed the idea of one-to-one correspondences between infinite sets. But the next major advance in the theory was made by Georg Cantor; in 1895 he published a book about his new set theory, introducing, among other things, transfinite numbers and formulating the continuum hypothesis.

In the 1960s, Abraham Robinson showed how infinitely large and infinitesimal numbers can be rigorously defined and used to develop the field of nonstandard analysis. The system of hyperreal numbers represents a rigorous method of treating the ideas about infinite and infinitesimal numbers that had been used casually by mathematicians, scientists, and engineers ever since the invention of infinitesimal calculus by Newton and Leibniz.

A modern geometrical version of infinity is given by projective geometry, which introduces "ideal points at infinity", one for each spatial direction. Each family of parallel lines in a given direction is postulated to converge to the corresponding ideal point. This is closely related to the idea of vanishing points in perspective drawing.

Complex numbers

The earliest fleeting reference to square roots of negative numbers occurred in the work of the mathematician and inventor Heron of Alexandria in the 1st century AD, when he considered the volume of an impossible frustum of a pyramid. They became more prominent when in the 16th century closed formulas for the roots of third and fourth degree polynomials were discovered by Italian mathematicians such as Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia and Gerolamo Cardano. It was soon realized that these formulas, even if one was only interested in real solutions, sometimes required the manipulation of square roots of negative numbers.

This was doubly unsettling since they did not even consider negative numbers to be on firm ground at the time. When René Descartes coined the term "imaginary" for these quantities in 1637, he intended it as derogatory. (See imaginary number for a discussion of the "reality" of complex numbers.) A further source of confusion was that the equation

seemed capriciously inconsistent with the algebraic identity

which is valid for positive real numbers a and b, and was also used in complex number calculations with one of a, b positive and the other negative. The incorrect use of this identity, and the related identity

in the case when both a and b are negative even bedeviled Euler. This difficulty eventually led him to the convention of using the special symbol i in place of to guard against this mistake.

The 18th century saw the work of Abraham de Moivre and Leonhard Euler. De Moivre's formula (1730) states:

while Euler's formula of complex analysis (1748) gave us:

The existence of complex numbers was not completely accepted until Caspar Wessel described the geometrical interpretation in 1799. Carl Friedrich Gauss rediscovered and popularized it several years later, and as a result the theory of complex numbers received a notable expansion. The idea of the graphic representation of complex numbers had appeared, however, as early as 1685, in Wallis's De Algebra tractatus.

Also in 1799, Gauss provided the first generally accepted proof of the fundamental theorem of algebra, showing that every polynomial over the complex numbers has a full set of solutions in that realm. The general acceptance of the theory of complex numbers is due to the labors of Augustin Louis Cauchy and Niels Henrik Abel, and especially the latter, who was the first to boldly use complex numbers with a success that is well known.

Gauss studied complex numbers of the form a + bi, where a and b are integral, or rational (and i is one of the two roots of x2 + 1 = 0). His student, Gotthold Eisenstein, studied the type a + , where ω is a complex root of x3 − 1 = 0. Other such classes (called cyclotomic fields) of complex numbers derive from the roots of unity xk − 1 = 0 for higher values of k. This generalization is largely due to Ernst Kummer, who also invented ideal numbers, which were expressed as geometrical entities by Felix Klein in 1893.

In 1850 Victor Alexandre Puiseux took the key step of distinguishing between poles and branch points, and introduced the concept of essential singular points. This eventually led to the concept of the extended complex plane.

Prime numbers

Prime numbers have been studied throughout recorded history. Euclid devoted one book of the Elements to the theory of primes; in it he proved the infinitude of the primes and the fundamental theorem of arithmetic, and presented the Euclidean algorithm for finding the greatest common divisor of two numbers.

In 240 BC, Eratosthenes used the Sieve of Eratosthenes to quickly isolate prime numbers. But most further development of the theory of primes in Europe dates to the Renaissance and later eras.

In 1796, Adrien-Marie Legendre conjectured the prime number theorem, describing the asymptotic distribution of primes. Other results concerning the distribution of the primes include Euler's proof that the sum of the reciprocals of the primes diverges, and the Goldbach conjecture, which claims that any sufficiently large even number is the sum of two primes. Yet another conjecture related to the distribution of prime numbers is the Riemann hypothesis, formulated by Bernhard Riemann in 1859. The prime number theorem was finally proved by Jacques Hadamard and Charles de la Vallée-Poussin in 1896. Goldbach and Riemann's conjectures remain unproven and unrefuted.

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