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Friday, July 01, 2005
Many of you probably don't realize you use Arabic Numerals. Some of you may think this explains why you have so much trouble with math -- the numbers are in a different language! How can you divide 73 by 13 when the numbers are'nt even English?

Actually, we don't use Arabic numerals. We use Hindu numerals. Western call them Arabic because Europe got the numerals from the Islamic world, which got them from the Hindus.(People use to pay attention to the subtleties of multiculturalism.)

The switch from Roman to Arabic numerals took place in the Middle Ages, propelled by a book in the 13th century by the mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci in which he discussed the merits of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system. Islamic mathematics was not a far off, exotic concept at that point because for much of the Middle Ages the Muslims had ruled Spain, Sicily, and North Africa, and when they were finally driven out by European they left behind mathematical treatiises. We tend to forget that Islam was a more powerful culture, and more scientifically advanced, that European civilization in the centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

"If you landed from Mars in teh year 800 A.D. and wanted to go to the center of mathematical learning on Earth, you'd go to Baghdad, says Bill Dunham, author fo a book, "The Mathematical Universe".

Many accountants in the middle Ages retained Roman numerals instead of switching. The reason is that addition and subtraction can often be quite easy in the Roman system. Let's say you want to subtract 16 from 68. In the Arabic system, you plop the 68 on top of the 16, subtract 6 from 8, and 1 from 6, to get your answer, 52. But in the Roman system you'd just whack an X and a V and I and LXVIII to get LII. It's subtraction by meat cleaver.

But Arabic numerals are more graceful in other ways. Their main advantage is that they have a "place" system, in which the value of a numeral is determined by its position. This is one reason why it's so much easier to write 1994 than MCMXCIV. In the Roman system, the numerals are intransigent. An X is always , 10, a C is always 100, and so on. (XC is 90, but the X still represents 10 and the C still represents 100).

The Hindus also invented a 0, one of the great inventions of all time. No one knows who came up with this idea. Originally the 0 was probably just a place holder, for use between, say, a 5 and a 7 in teh number 507. Eventually it grew to be the number we know and love so much now, one unti less than 1, the number that most perfectly represents the social skills of the average Why staffer.

Our advice to everyone is to revert, whenever possible, to cuneiform numerals. These were invented by the Sumerians and Chaldeans about 5000 years ago and where devised on a base 60 system (as opposed to our base 10 system). They used little wedges as symbols, and the direction the wedge pointed determined the number.

For extra credit you might want to try the Egyptian system in use about 4000 years ago, in which 100 was represented by a chain, 1,000 by a lotus flower, 10,000 by a pointed finger, 100,000 by a tadpole, and 1 million by a man with hsi arms outstreched.

(abstracted from from the book: WHY THINGS ARE AND WHY THINGS AREN'T by: Joel Achenbach)
posted by infraternam meam @ 4:17 PM  
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Name: infraternam meam
Home: Chicago, United States
About Me: I am now at the prime of my life and have been married for the past 25 years. Sickly at times, but wants to see the elixir vita, so that I will be able to see my grandchildren from my two boys.
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