Once, There Weren’t Numbers

a fable about the origins of those helpful counting thingies

Once there weren’t numbers,
and life was cold and sad.
You might say “I’ve got lots of stuff!”
but not how much you had.


You could gather flowers,
but you couldn’t count them up.
You could ask for chocolate milk,
but not a “second” cup.
And though their eyes could see just fine,
the people still were blind.
They held things in their arms and hands,
but never in their minds.


Then a number sprouted up!
No one knows quite how.
It just appeared,
and people cheered,
“We’ve got a number now!”
It glistened in the morning dew,
and sparkled in the sun.
It stood up straight and proud, and cried,
“Hello! I’m number one.”


And after that, the people saw the world a different way.
They might come home and tell their friends,
“I saw one cow today!”
“One sandwich!” they could tell the cook.
“One song!” they’d ask the singer.
“One glass of water,” they’d request,
while holding up one finger.

But if they wanted more to drink,
well, that was not as fun.
They’d say, “One more. One more. One more,”
until the thirst was done.


Finally, one day, One cried out,
“This simply will not do!
I’m not enough! You need my friend!”
And out stepped number two.
The people cheered!
Two waved and grinned,
and said, “Oh, mercy me!
Let’s have my friend come join us now!”
And out stepped number three.


Three just blushed and introduced
its friend, the number four.
Each number brought another friend,
and more, and more, and more!
By the time the sun had set,
the numbers filled the air.
They stretched into the evening sky—
Numbers everywhere!


The world had changed that very day:
The people now could count.
Instead of saying, “Look! Some sheep!”
They’d state the right amount.
“Eleven children in the class.”
“Twenty boats at sea.”
“The ants upon the ground below?
There’s seven-hundred three.”

Things were good.
Yes, things were great!
Except one thing was not.
Two friends had baked themselves a cake,
then said, “It seems we’re caught.
We want to share this cake we’ve made.
We want to split it fair.
But what amount should we each get?
We’re simply not aware.”
No one knew just how much cake
to give to both the friends.
They argued till their throats were sore,
and patience hit its end.


Then the numbers happened by,
and broke into a laugh.
“You don’t need us!” the numbers cried.
“You need our friend one-half!”

Indeed, they did—and quickly, they resolved their cake transaction.
“One-half! What are you?” people asked.
And it said, “I’m a fraction!”
And then there sprouted from the ground,
from crannies and crevasses,
fractions by the millions,
fractions by the masses!


“What a world of numbers!” people cried,
and danced,
and sang.
They thought their tale had ended with a satisfying bang.
They thought they knew the numbers.
Every uncle, aunt, and kid:
they thought they knew the numbers!
They really thought they did.


For years, they’ve kept on coming, though,
emerging through the mist.
There’s too many to fathom.
There’s too many to list.
They come in different sizes,
and they come in different signs.
There’s negatives,
and radicals,
and 1-4-1-5-9’s.
Some of them are perfect,
and some of them are square,
and some are just irrational,
like clumps of unbrushed hair.

Some are made of many parts,
and some are elemental.
Some are real,
and some are not,
and some are transcendental.
Some are large as universes,
others small as seeds.
You plant a single number
and the others sprout like weeds.

And even now—yes, even now!—on strange and special days,
numbers help the people see the world in different ways.

Once there weren’t numbers,
but that was long ago.
And now they cover everything,
like freshly fallen snow.


25 thoughts on “Once, There Weren’t Numbers

  1. Oh my gosh!!!
    This needs to be a children’s book!!
    My kids would love it.
    Just a thought but if you start up one of those deals (I’m super uncool and I don’t know what it’s called) where people can donate the upstart money… I’d send some dough your way… if you sign my book ;-)!!!

  2. Parts of this reminded me of a parable told by John C. Baez and James Dolan:

    “Long ago, when shepherds wanted to see if two herds of sheep were isomorphic, they would look for an explicit isomorphism. In other words, they would line up both herds and try to match each sheep in one herd with a sheep in the other. But one day, along came a shepherd who invented decategorification. She realized one could take each herd and ‘count’ it, setting up an isomorphism between it and some set of ‘numbers’, which were nonsense words like ‘one, two, three, . . . ’ specially designed for this purpose. By comparing the resulting numbers, she could show that two herds were isomorphic without explicitly establishing an isomorphism! In short, by decategorifying the category of finite sets, the set of natural numbers was invented.”

    Source: http://arxiv.org/abs/math/9802029

  3. The Pirahã don’t count things and don’t have number words in their language. They can learn how to use Portugese number-words, they just mostly haven’t had any interest in it until the last few years. They do have qualitative words for ‘a few’ and ‘a lot’, and they can do matching of sets if the members of the sets are physically present, but that’s it.

    There are a lot more cultures that have a bounded integer counting system with an upper value using body parts. For example, they can count on one hand, the wrist, the elbow, and so on up to the head and down the other arm, but that’s it. So the word for ‘one’ also means ‘left thumb’, and so on, and when you run out of body parts, you have run out of integers. Typical maxima are in the 20s to the 40s, depending on how much of the body is used.

  4. I’ll second or third or fourth the idea of a kids’ book. It really well done. One suggestion (always, right?) can you add an short bit about zero? Like, after they learned to count, they didn’t know what to say when they used up all of something. There used to be five people in this room, but they went home. How do I say how many are there now? One can introduce its special friend zero as the answer. Only nicely said in poetry, like you did the rest of it. Lovely poetry!

  5. I read this to a classroom full of fifth graders a couple of hours ago, and then had them come up with their own fables about the origins of everyday things. What a wonderful poem that works as a motivation for learning numbers (including the fractions they just started studying) and doubles as an impromptu writing assignment.

    Also, I second the sentiment that the final picture could benefit from some more exotic numbers (how about some Alephs?)

  6. Good stuff. Ill show this to my students when they ask “When are we ever going to use this?”. I might make it bed time read for my kids. Definitely reblog material

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