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The first we know of numbers is when we start learning to count. One, two, buckle my shoe… Pretty soon we know the number of our age, the number of the day we were born, the month, the year. Before long we’ve learnt the numbers we like on the remote control, our friends’ telephone numbers, the number of our favourite football player, how much pocket money we’re owed and the cost of the things we want to buy… In the space of a handful of years, our knowledge of numbers soars from one and two to thousands and millions. And it goes on growing ad infinitum.
Numbers have a magical quality. Some people claim to see certain numbers appearing everywhere they look and attach supernatural power to it. In mathematics too, the way some numbers behave can seem amazing. Even Pythagoras, the great Greek mathematician, attributed mystical qualities to some of the numbers that captured his imagination.
In some cases, numbers have assumed cult status from their appearance in popular culture, religion, mythology or historical events: 9/11, Catch-22, Room 101, 666 – the number of the beast.
Amidst all of this it’s easy to forget that most of the numbers we use, and the ways they are applied, are the invention of man. That there are 24 hours in a day, and 360 degrees in a circle, and that 24 divides into 360,
is not a miracle of nature. That said, much of the significance we attach to numbers stems from our observation of natural fact: the number of fingers on each hand; the number of days and nights that pass between full
moons; the number of planets visible to the naked eye.
This book is a tribute to the charisma of numbers. There are numbers from nature, mathematics, science, religion, mythology, superstition, art, history, technology… In an effort to apply some structure to this mindboggling
subject, I have included every whole number from 0 to 100 (plus a few notable imperfect numbers), and then picked out a selection of larger numbers that should either be familiar to everyone, or relate to something
that is familiar. If I’ve missed out your favourite number, I apologize. This is not a definitive list. How could it be? The choice is infinite.