What are numbers and why do they do such a good job of explaining the universe?

Even toddlers at the age of three have a concept of what numbers are. Numbers, much like letters, play a crucial role in our everyday lives. When we adapted Hindu-Arabic numerals and the base-10 system, we gradually made numbers universally understood symbols. More so than words, numbers give representations and convey Mathematical ideas. But why are they so good at explaining the universe?

The Hindu-Arabic numerals, along with the Roman, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Chinese numbers, are examples of the numeration systems commonly used by our ancestors. Today, the Hindu-Arabic decimal system became widely used as it has a symbol for zero, and is positional in nature. We attribute this system to the 6th-century Hindu mathematicians and to the Arab merchants who adapted and propagated the numbers in their trade.

A number is formed using the symbols 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9, called digits. Each position in a numeral has a value in the power of 10 (according to the base-10 system). As one digit positions itself to either left or right, it increases or decreases its value by 10.

Universal Language

“Math is the language of the universe.” You have probably heard this many times. However, we have to question this perspective to understand why numbers explain the universe so well. Firstly, we need to find out if Math is even a language to start with

Language, by definition, is a complex system of words or symbols, either spoken or written, used by a particular community to communicate. Now we take a look at Math. Math is also a complex system of words or symbols and is usually written (but can be spoken at times) used by a particular community, like a group of mathematicians, to communicate mathematical ideas. So, is math a language? It sure is!

Is Math really the language of the universe? That depends. If you think the “universal language” has to answer philosophical questions, say the meaning of life. Math would most likely fail to provide an inclusive stance. Math and numbers alone are not enough to explain the universe – but that does not mean they do an awful job explaining it.

Explaining the Universe

There is no doubt that Math, through numbers, is an essential part of this “universal language.” Without it, we would not understand the world we live in. We would not know that galaxies are expanding or that the sun is made of gas and plasma. We would not realize why lightning is deadly or why earthquakes happen. We would not have the concept of day and night or ideas when seasons change.

The functions of the universe are easily decoded through representations. Representations allow us to learn, do, and simplify things.

When you throw anything up in the air, it will always fall. Why? We would not know unless we establish a representation. In English, we named the pulling force gravity.  In Math, we called it F= GM m / r*r. Representation through mathematical symbols allows us to learn.

Similarly, you wanted to know how much water your plant needed. For starters, you used a small jar. The little jar was not enough, so you proceeded with a bigger container. Your calla lily seemed very thirsty that this time, you filled a basin with water. Small jar, big container, and a basin full – if we had to use these as standard measurements in watering calla lilies, the plants will inevitably dry up or get drowned at any time. How much water is there in a small jar, big glass, and a basin-full? We are not sure, so we needed numbers to quantify. Representation through quantities allows us to do things right.

Another scenario. You went to a bookstore to find the story of a girl who fell down a rabbit hole into a dreamlike paradise. On the shelf, you read its title Alice in Wonderland. On the cashier’s screen, it is called 050087152451. These numbers are the universal product code commonly seen under a series of black vertical lines known as barcodes. These unique codes identify an individual product for sale to avoid confusion. Representation through numbers allows us to simplify our lives.

In a nutshell, math and numbers are observable, yet they remain innately abstract. They are deeply engraved in the universe yet are neither created nor discovered. They are simply not enough to explain the entirety of the universe, but when they do, they allow us to learn, do, and simplify things.