Greetings, all! It’s been a minute, but we’re back, we’re refreshed, and we’re buzzing with excitement about the next few months of Many Minds.
This episode we’re talking about one of humanity’s most powerful cognitive tools: numerals. Numerals are those unassuming symbols we use whenever we read clocks, check calendars, dial phone numbers, or do arithmetic. My guest on today’s show is Stephen Chrisomalis. Steve is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Wayne State University in Michigan, where he specializes in the anthropology of numbers, mathematics, and literacy. He’s the author of the recent book Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History, which is the focus of our conversation today.
Humans have developed more than a hundred different systems for representing numbers over the last 5000 years or so. Steve and I discuss how these systems differ from each other. We talk about how they build on the ancient tally systems used in the Upper Paleolithic and how the develop hand-in-hand with writing. We consider the popular idea that the Roman numerals fell from favor because they’re no for good calculation. (Not so much, says Steve.) We also talk about some lesser-known numerical notation systems. Like the one the Cherokee polymath Sequoyah developed alongside his much-celebrated syllabary. And, of course, we cast a glance to the future. What kinds of systems might humans be using centuries or even millennia from now?
Numerals are—in and of themselves—pretty cool. But they become all the more so when we see them in broader context. As Steve’s book makes clear, numerals offer a compelling case study in how of our cognitive technologies are shaped by the vagaries of history, the dynamics of culture, and, of course, the constraints of the human mind.
Learned a lot from this one, folks—I think you’ll enjoy it. Without further ado, here’s my chat with Steve Chrisomalis.