The Lumber Room

"Consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them"

Mathematics and notation: the Hindu-Arabic numeral system

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Quick: What is CCXXXVII × CCCXXIX?

From page 15 of The Life of Pi by Jonathan Borwein:

The Indo-Arabic system came to Europe around 1000 CE. Resistance ranged from accountants who didn’t want their livelihood upset to clerics who saw the system as ‘diabolical,’ since they incorrectly assumed its origin was Islamic. European commerce resisted until the 18th century, and even in scientific circles usage was limited into the 17th century.

The prior difficulty of doing arithmetic is indicated by college placement advice given a wealthy German merchant in the 16th century: “If you only want him to be able to cope with addition and subtraction, then any French or German university will do. But if you are intent on your son going on to multiplication and division — assuming that he has sufficient gifts — then you will have to send him to Italy.” (George Ifrah, p. 577)

[The rest of the pages of the slides are also great and worth reading!]

Just to give some context of the time: The Hindu-Arabic system was introduced into Europe by Leonardo of Pisa (Fibonacci) — an Italian — in his Liber Abaci, written in 1202. Gutenberg (in Germany) invented the printing press around 1450. In Italy, Tartaglia lived 1500-1557, Cardano 1501-1576, Sturm 1507-1589, Giodano Bruno (1548-1600), and Ludovico Ferrari (1522-1565). (And outside Italy, Robert Recorde (as we’re talking about notation) (1510-1558) in Wales, François Viète (1540-1603) in France, etc. See this image.) Of course Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was Italian too, but came later, as did Newton, Fermat, the Bernoullis, and all the others.

While on the topic of mathematics and notation, see also this post: Visual Clarity in the Naming of Variables.
[And while not exactly notation, Donald Knuth’s Calculus via O notation]

Written by S

Sun, 2008-12-14 at 05:19:19

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