Numbers fascinate me. What the heck are they? They seem to have an intimate relationship with the “real world”, but are they part of it? If I heave a rock at you, I heave a physical object at you. If I heave two rocks at you, I heave real objects at you. It’s a different physical experience for you, though.

If I heave a third rock at you, again, it’s a different qualitative experience. It’s also a different qualitative experience from having one rock or two rocks thrown at you.

Numbers come in three “shapes”. There are cardinal numbers, which answer questions like “How many rocks did I throw at you?” There are ordinal numbers, which answer questions like “Which rock hit you on the shoulder?” Finally there are nominal numbers, which merely label things and answer questions like “What’s you phone number?”

As another example, in the recent 10km walk which I took part in, I came sixth (ordinal) in my age division. That sounds good until I admit that there were only seven (cardinal) entrants in that division. Incidentally, my bib number was 20179 (nominal).

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Cardinal numbers include the natural numbers, the integers and the rational numbers and the real numbers (as well as more esoteric numbers). For instance the cardinal real number π is the answer to the question “How many times would the diameter fit around the circumference of a circle?”

It’s a bit more difficult to relate ordinal numbers with real numbers, but the real numbers can definitely be ordered – in other words a real number ‘x’ is either bigger than another real number ‘y’, or vice versa or they are equal. However, there are, loosely speaking, more real numbers than ordinals, so any relationship between ordinal numbers and real numbers must be a relationship between the ordinal numbers and a subset of the real numbers.

Subsets of the real numbers can have ordinal numbers associated with them in a simple way. If we have a function which generates real numbers from a parameter, and if we feed the function with a series of other numbers, then the series of other numbers is ordered by the way that we feed them to the function, and the resulting set of real numbers is also ordered.

So, we might have a random number generator from which we extract a number and feed it to the function. That becomes the first real number. Then we extract another number from the generator, feed it to the function and that becomes the second real number, and so on.

What we end up doing is associating a series of integer ordinal numbers with the generated series of real numbers. These ordinal numbers are associated with the ordered set of real numbers that we create, but the real numbers don’t have to be ordered in terms of their size.

Nominal numbers such as my bib number are merely labels. They may be generated in an ordered way, though, as in the case of my bib number. If I had registered a split second earlier or later I would have received a different number. However, once allocated they only serve to show that I have registered, and they also show which event I registered for.

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On the occasion that I took part there were two other events scheduled : a 6.5km walk and a half marathon. My bib number indicated to the marshals and officials which event I was taking in and which way to direct me to go.

I’m not a mathematician, but it seems to me that ordinal numbers are more closely aligned to the natural numbers, the positive integers, than to any other set of numbers. You don’t think of someone coming 37 and a half position in a race. Indeed if two people come in at the same time they are conventionally given the same position in the race and the next position is not given.

There’s a fundamental difference between natural numbers or the integers, or for that matter the rational numbers and the real numbers. The real numbers are not countable : they can’t be mapped to the natural numbers or the integers. The rational numbers can, so can be considered countable. (Once again, I’m simplifying radically!)

Natural numbers and integers are related to discrete objects and other things. The number of dollars and cents in your bank account is a discrete amount, in spite of the fact that it is used as real number in the bank’s calculations of interest on your balance. If I toss two rocks at you that is a discrete amount.

Even I tip a bucket of water over you, I douse you in a discrete number of water molecules (plus an uncertain number of other molecules, depending on how dirty the water is). However the distance that I have to throw the water is not a discrete number of metres. It’s 1.72142… metres, a real number.

At the level at which we normally measure distances distances don’t appear to be broken down into tiny bits. To cover a distance one first has to cover half the distance. To cover half the distance one must first cover one quarter of the distance. It is evident that this halving process can be continued indefinitely, although the times involved are also halved at each step.

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This seems a little odd to me. Numbers are at the basis of things, and while numbers are not all that there is, as some Greek philosophers held, they are important, and, I think, show the shape of the Universe. If the Universe did not have real numbers, for example, then it would be unchanging or perhaps motion would be a discrete process, like movements on a chess board.

If the Universe did not have any integers, the concept of individual objects would not be possible, since if you could point at an object you would have effectively counted “one”. In other words we need the natural numbers so that we can identify objects and distinguish one from one another, and we need the real numbers so that we can ensure that the objects don’t all exists at the same spot and are, in fact separated from one another.