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A brief history of banned numbers - Alessandra King

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They say the pen is mightier than the sword, and authorities have often agreed. From outlawed religious tracts and revolutionary manifestos to censored and burned books, we know the potential power of words to overturn the social order. But as strange as it may seem, some numbers have also been considered dangerous enough to ban. Alessandra King details the history behind illegal numbers.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Alessandra King
  • Director Mauricio Vargas
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Producer Andrés F. Urbina
  • Storyboard Artist Mauricio Vargas
  • Character Designer Mauricio Vargas
  • Animator Leon Mejía
  • Compositor Leon Mejía
  • Composer Camilo Vega
  • Sound Designer Camilo Vega
  • Associate Producer Jessica Ruby
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Julianna Zarzycki

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Numbers began to emerge together with writing around 5000 BCE as humans developed agriculture and started to live together in larger groups. They needed to know the size of fields, the volume of baskets, the numbers of objects exchanged, and the taxes to be paid, and divisions of land and inheritance. To make these calculations, they used "counting numbers," or what we call “natural numbers” such as 1, 2, and 3, as well as fractions.

When people started thinking about numbers, not just using them, trouble started. Take for example the Pythagoreans, a group of students of mathematics led by the famous mathematician Pythagoras, for whom the Pythagorean theorem is named. For Pythagoras and his followers “all is number.” He is known for discovering that the relations between the notes of the musical scale can be described by ratios; he thought that ratios and proportions describe the beauty of mathematics, music, and the universe.  Irrational numbers were dangerous because they challenged the Pythagorean understanding of the world.

When Arabic numerals were introduced in Europe, they were received with suspicion, and not just because they were seen as easier to falsify in accounting. The number zero that accompanied the new numerical system presented serious conceptual
difficulties. Even mathematicians had trouble accepting it and the negative numbers it foreshadowed for a long time.

Finally, some numbers are banned even nowadays – some for historical or political reasons, while others are illegal because of the information they carry.
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TED-Ed
Lesson Creator
New York, NY
09/21/2017 • 
 39 Responses
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About TED-Ed Originals

TED-Ed Original lessons feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed original? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Alessandra King
  • Director Mauricio Vargas
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Producer Andrés F. Urbina
  • Storyboard Artist Mauricio Vargas
  • Character Designer Mauricio Vargas
  • Animator Leon Mejía
  • Compositor Leon Mejía
  • Composer Camilo Vega
  • Sound Designer Camilo Vega
  • Associate Producer Jessica Ruby
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Julianna Zarzycki

Share

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