What is a number?

After we learn 1-2-3’s and basic algebra or maybe after calculus, we stopped asking this question. We tend to take numbers for granted. Unless you are a mathematician, a scientist or an engineer, we do not think deeply about numbers because they are so mundane. Probably because we use numbers every day as part of our daily routine. We utilize numbers to pay our bills, to find out what time it is, to determine how far we have traveled, to check how much battery left on our phones and many more.

Now, we can ask another question that we don’t usually ask ourselves. How diversely “number” can be represented? The number can be represented either definitively or abstractly. With my research, I have gathered 5 different ways numbers are represented across the fields in different modes.

1 ) Number as Date

Each day is distinguished by date, and dates are represented in numbers. More precisely, each second of our lives are different from one another and has different numerical value. On Kawara understood this concept very well, so he created over 3000 paintings as part of Today series, where he painted one painting a day. Visually, paintings look very similar with a month, day and year in white on solid color background, but they are different because of the date they were executed. He also included a newspaper from day part of his work, so that people can grasp the sense of what happened that day.

When I first encountered this painting at Dia: Beacon, I went around the room and searched for the painting with my birthdate and other dates meaningful to me. Dates, especially birthdate is a set of number that we are born with and associated with throughout our lives. Thus, birthdate is often used for identification.

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 10.20.28 AM.png
“DEC.29,1977,” from the “Today” series (1966-2013).


On Kawara, canvases from the 'Today Series' (1966 - 2014)
On Kawara, canvases from the ‘Today Series’ (1966 – 2014).

2 ) Number as Data

When there are multiple sets of numbers, they become data. With the advancement of technology, we are now able to gather much more information about our lives easily than before. The numbers play a vital role in data visualization.


RGB – NYT Word Frequency by Jer Thorp

Jer Thorp, a data artist in residence at the New York Times R&D group, created this radial graph based the frequency of word usage of the word “red”, “green” and “blue” on NYT between 1981 and 2011.

Even though the process is very different from traditional fine arts, data visualization can be as beautiful as work of art; worthy to be framed and exhibited at galleries. The visualization of the data from personal devices is often more meaningful since it’s relevant and unique for the user.

A studio based in London, Variable, created a data visualization called Fibers, which is created based on data from the trainings preceding We Own The Night – Nike Women’s 10K run.

Nike FuelBand Fibers by Variable

3 ) Number as Counter

Innately, numbers are meant to be counted from either descending or ascending orders. The numbers give us quantitative data as well as sense of time.

Tatsuo Miyajima utilizes LED counters to express three key concepts: “Keep Changing”, “Connect with Everything” and “Continue Forever.” In his work, numbers represent time passing and continuing forever. Miyajima intentionally omits the use of zero, which means the end.

Counter Void
Tatsuo Miyajima, Counter Void, 2003. White neon, Film glass, Aluminum, Electric wire, IC, Time control program, 510 x 5390 cm.
Diamond in You No. 1
Tatsuo Miyajima, Diamond in You No.1, 2010. Light Emitting Diode, IC, Electric wire, Stainless mirror, Iron, 179.4 x 163.7 x 45.5 cm.
Counter Window v3-6-01
Tatsuo Miyajima, Counter Window v3-6-01, 2004. Liquid Crystal Glass, IC, Time Controller, Electric wire, Aluminum frame, 198.3 x 134 x 10cm.


4 ) Number as Pixels

Quantitative nature of number enables us to measure and compare one thing to another. But sometimes even with the help of number, it’s hard to imagine or compare size or quantity either because they are too small to see with our naked eye or too big. When these things are represented as a number of pixels, we are able to see and compare better. A pixel is a unit of digital image length.

Severino Ribecca designed an infographic that each pixel represent 1kcal. In this way, we are able to compare which food has more calories than the other.

Fancy a Byte? Food in Pixel Art Infographic


Similarly, one pixel represents the size of the moon on “If the moon were only 1 pixel,” a website developed by Josh Worth. Worth claims that this website is “a tediously accurate scale model of the solar system.” Astronomical numbers need to represent in such way to be comprehended. With the help of this website, we are able to imagine how big stars are.


5 ) Number as Ranking

The numbers have orders; and by assigning the ranking, we are able to see what comes first or last, what is the best or the worst and etc.

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 11.08.53 PM
The Selfiest Cities in the World: TIME’s Definitive Ranking

Selfiest Cities: Makati City and Pasig City

1. Makati City and Pasig, Philippines
258 selfie-takers per 100,000 people


2. Manhattan, N.Y.
202 selfie-takers per 100,000 people


3. Miami, Fla.
155 selfie-takers per 100,000 people



I want to end this post with this amazing video that presents three ways of ordinary activities can be represented. It captures the beauty of math also known as the numbers, represented in equations, graphs, and real-life shots.



All original sources for images are linked. Please visit links below for more information.

Number as Date

Number as Data

Jer Thorp – Random Number Multiples

Nike FuelBand Fibers

Number as Counter

Number as Pixels

Number as Rank


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