To Infinity And Beyond

Which came first, the thought or the word?

Or put another way, can you have a concept of without a word for it?

In one of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett writes a scene in which a troll, despite a limited counting system (one, two, three, many, lots) is able to carry out sophisticated calculations.

The troll works uses compounded numbers, (many-one, many-two, many-many) to uncover mathematical principles.

Now the real world has mirrored Pratchett’s vision. Researchers have found that Aboriginal children can count, despite having no words for numbers – the children only have words for one, two, few and many.

When I was five and about to begin school, I knew eight letters of the alphabet, and could count to ten.

I soon discovered there were other letters all the way to Z, and other numbers.

Numbers, I learned, went up to one hundred. Then one thousand.

The nearest I ever felt to a transcendental moment was the day I kept asking what the next number was. Ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million. Ten million.

Numbers, I suddenly realised, weren’t like letters. Numbers go on forever.

Infinity is exceptionally cool when you’re five years old.

By Gerard Cunningham

Gerard Cunningham occupies his time working as a journalist, writer, sub-editor, blogger and podcaster, yet still finds himself underemployed.