In this fascinating opening instalment to a new series on math for adults, the New York Times
's Steven Strogatz uses a Sesame Street sketch to begin unpicking the subtle wonder of numbers:
The best introduction to numbers I've ever seen -- the clearest and funniest explanation of what they are and why we need them -- appears in a "Sesame Street" video called "123 Count With Me." Humphrey, an amiable but dim-witted fellow with pink fur and a green nose, is working the lunch shift at The Furry Arms hotel, when he takes a call from a room full of penguins. Humphrey listens carefully and then calls out their order to the kitchen: "Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish, fish." This prompts Ernie to enlighten him about the virtues of the number six.
From Fish to Infinity
Children learn from this that numbers are wonderful shortcuts. Instead of saying the word "fish" exactly as many times as there are penguins, Humphrey could use the more powerful concept of "six."
A further subtlety is that numbers (and all mathematical ideas, for that matter) have lives of their own. We can't control them. Even though they exist in our minds, once we decide what we mean by them we have no say in how they behave. They obey certain laws and have certain properties, personalities, and ways of combining with one another, and there's nothing we can do about it except watch and try to understand. In that sense they are eerily reminiscent of atoms and stars, the things of this world, which are likewise subject to laws beyond our control ... except that those things exist outside our heads.
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