Skip to main content area Skip to institutional navigation Skip to sub-navigation

Mathematics- MA 151: The World of Numbers

Block 1: Robin Wilson

Block 2: Marlow Anderson

This two-block course satisfies the Critical Perspectives: The West in Time and the Critical Perspectives: Quantitative Reasoning requirements.

A Mesopotamian accounts table in cuneiform script from 2400 BC Numbers are as fundamental to humans as are language and music. People have been writing numbers for as long as there has been writing. In our course, we will trace the use of numbers from the ancient civilizations of the Middle East, Egypt, and Mesopotamia through the axiomatic deductive approach taken by the Greek and Hellenistic civilizations all the while observing the many influences from around the world. We will progress to Newton and new insights into infinite processes, and what we now call calculus eventually reaching the twentieth century discussing notions of infinity and Fermat’s Last Theorem.  

The way that people think about numbers has evolved over time: natural numbers, prime numbers, rational numbers, real numbers, complex numbers. Similarly, our ability to calculate has evolved: the Peruvian quipu, the Chinese abacus, the modern microprocessor. In our course, we will consider the impact of computers on today's society and the role numbers play in search engines and in web security. We will discover how numbers are both endlessly useful and fascinating.

In our historical journey through the development of numbers, we will consider epistemology (what is truth? how do we know what we know?), the role of mathematics in art and architecture, and the prominence of mathematics in religion and calendrical systems. We will read primary sources as well as study contemporary plays and film. Along the way, we will also delve into the mathematics of other cultures and make comparisons to the Western tradition.

A two-block course with a unique instructor each block; students will receive a single grade for both blocks.


  • There will be occasional afternoon problem sessions.
  • There is no formal mathematical prerequisite.  Some experience and comfort with arithmetic and elementary algebra is recommended.