What is a Number?

NYU Abu Dhabi course shows how simple numbers can build entire civilizations and lead to the world’s greatest inventions

Numbers, just like languages, have a long and surprisingly controversial history. Zero, for example, was accepted by some civilizations as a number some 1,500 years ago, but considered a dangerous idea by others.

A number in itself may not mean much. But when you put them together in formulas like calculus or algebra, remarkable things happen. Like building the great pyramids of Egypt, or sending a rocket into space.

When NYU Abu Dhabi senior Rami Haytham Aboulhassan took a course by Visiting Associate Professor Jean-Renaud Pycke called What is a Number? he wasn’t expecting the class to move between so many subjects.

To understand numbers, the class shared insights of astronomy, music, geometry, and other subjects that have a close relationship with numbers. There was also an introduction to a brief history of ancient Greece and Egypt, before diving right into the numbering systems of ancient Egypt and ancient Greece.

Different numbering systems in different civilizations made it easier to discover specific scientific relations, Aboulhassan learned. For example, ancient Egyptian made it easier to calculate the motion of the planet, which would have been more challenging using the Greek number system.

The class also discusses the contentious invention of calculus between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, and learns how Newton’s notation in calculus is much harder to implement compared to Leibniz.

Rami Haytham Aboulhassan, Class of 2018.

The class left an unexpected impression on Aboulhassan - a third generation Egyptian who was  born and raised in Kuwait by his second generation Egyptian parents. He was taught British history in a British school system and knew very little about Egyptian history. “It was very interesting to learn a lot about my (Egyptian) history, at NYUAD, in a course about numbers,” said the Class of 2018 mechanical engineering major.

A Core Curriculum Course

Our core curriculum courses aim to foster modes of thinking and habits of mind central to well-rounded intellectual development and to global citizenship and leadership.

In order to graduate, NYUAD students are required to take one course filling a quantitative reasoning requirement, one course filling an experimental inquiry requirement, and one that fills an Islamic studies requirement.

“What is a Number” falls under the Quantitative Reasoning requirement.

Learn about these additional requirements: