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It is often said that mathematics is the language of science. If this is true, then an essential part of the language of mathematics is numbers. The earliest use of numbers occurred 100 centuries ago in the Middle East to count, or enumerate items. Farmers, cattlemen, and tradesmen used tokens, stones, or markers to signify a single quantity—a sheaf of grain, a head of livestock, or a fixed length of cloth, for example. Doing so made commerce possible, leading to improved communications and the spread of civilization.
Three to four thousand years ago, Egyptians introduced fractions. They first used them to show reciprocals. Later, they used them to represent the amount when a quantity was divided into equal parts.
But what if there were no cattle to trade or an entire crop of grain was lost in a flood? How could someone indicate the existence of nothing? From earliest times, people had thought of a “base state” while counting and used various symbols to represent this null condition. However, it was not until about the fifth century A.D. in India that zero was added to the number system and used as a numeral in calculations.
Clearly, there was also a need for numbers to represent loss or debt. In India, in the seventh century A.D., negative numbers were used as solutions to mathematical equations and commercial debts. The opposites of the counting numbers expanded the number system even further.
Because of the evolution of the number system, we can now perform complex calculations using these and other categories of real numbers. In this section, we will explore sets of numbers, calculations with different kinds of numbers, and the use of numbers in expressions.
The numbers we use for counting, or enumerating items, are the natural numbers : 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on. We describe them in set notation as $\text{\hspace{0.17em}}\left\{1,2,3,\mathrm{...}\right\}\text{\hspace{0.17em}}$ where the ellipsis (…) indicates that the numbers continue to infinity. The natural numbers are, of course, also called the counting numbers . Any time we enumerate the members of a team, count the coins in a collection, or tally the trees in a grove, we are using the set of natural numbers. The set of whole numbers is the set of natural numbers plus zero: $\text{\hspace{0.17em}}\left\{0,1,2,3,\mathrm{...}\right\}.$
The set of integers adds the opposites of the natural numbers to the set of whole numbers: $\text{\hspace{0.17em}}\left\{\mathrm{...},\mathrm{-3},\mathrm{-2},\mathrm{-1},0,1,2,3,\mathrm{...}\right\}.$ It is useful to note that the set of integers is made up of three distinct subsets: negative integers, zero, and positive integers. In this sense, the positive integers are just the natural numbers. Another way to think about it is that the natural numbers are a subset of the integers.
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