‘So-called ‘imaginary’ numbers – based on the square root of a negative number – were considered an oddity for many years until they proved their worth in electronic and electrical engineering’, said mathematician Jonathan Hughes. ‘We think the Abbott Numbers might prove equally valuable, though, as yet, we don’t have a practical application for them’.

Abbott Numbers are whole numbers which, when divided, might go up rather than down. They also ‘float’, or vary their magnitude, on a random basis.

‘Floating is really difficult to explain to a layperson’, said Dr Hughes. ‘Imagine you’re paid thirty thousand a year, but some years this is just six pounds, while on other years you receive a billion pounds and a mountain of gold. That’s Abbott Numbers. Except they wouldn’t vary annually, but on a much faster cycle – during a conversation, for example.

There have been suggestions that the Abbott numbers might prove useful in public sector accounting, but most mathematicians regard the idea as absurd.