Number is intimately connected with geometry, as illustrated in this chapter by our use of the number line and the area model of multiplication. Those same models of number can, of course, arise when measurement is introduced in geometry. The connection between number and algebra is illustrated in the chapter by our use of algebra to express properties of number systems and other general relationships between numbers. The links from number to geometry and to algebra are forged even more strongly when students are introduced to the coordinate plane, in which perpendicular number lines provide a system of coordinates for each point—an idea first put forward by the French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650), although he did not insist that the number lines were perpendicular. Number is also essential in data analysis, the process of making sense of collections of numbers. Using numbers to investigate processes of variation, such as accumulation and rates of change, can provide students with the numerical underpinnings of calculus.

Some of the manifold connections and dependencies between number and other mathematical domains may be illustrated by the so-called handshake problem:

If eight people are at a party and each person shakes hands exactly once with every other person, how many handshakes are there?

This problem appears often in the literature on problem solving in school mathematics, probably because it can be solved in so many ways. Perhaps the simplest way of getting a solution is just to count the handshakes systematically: The first person shakes hands with seven people; the second person, having shaken the first person’s hand, shakes hands with six people whose hands he or she has not yet shaken; the third person shakes hands with five people; and so on until the seventh person shakes hands with only the eighth person. The number of handshakes, therefore, is 7+6+5+4+3+2+1, which is 28.

This method of solution can be generalized to a situation with any number of people, which is what a mathematician would want to do. For a party with 20 people, for example, there would be 19+18+17+16+15+14+13+12+11+10+9+8+7+6+5+4+3+2+1 handshakes, but the computation would be more time consuming. Because mathematicians are interested not only in generalizations of problems but also in simplifying solutions, it would be nice to find a simple way of adding the numbers. In general, for m+1 people at a party, the number of handshakes would be the sum of the first m counting numbers:24

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement