Posts Tagged 'Gerbert'

Arabic Myths

It was once mistakenly thought that the Arabs invented ‘Arabic’ numerals, including the number ‘0’ (zero), a great improvement over Roman numerals for algebra, another supposed Arabic invention. That’s complete nonsense. For example, Cajori’s A History of Mathematics (Fifth edition, 1991) informs us:

The grandest achievement of the Hindus, and the one which, of all mathematical inventions, has contributed most to the progress of intelligence, is the perfecting of the so-called “Arabic Notation.” That this notation did not originate with the Arabs is now admitted by everyone.

What we call ‘Arabic’ numerals are not the characters that appear in Arabic script. Even the Arabs themselves don’t call these signs Arabic numerals but Western numerals, or Hindu numerals, which was their actual source around 200 BC. By the fifth century AD the Indians were using decimal notation and had developed the use of zero from an earlier concept of it in Babylonian mathematics.

Through the writings of Gerbert D’Aurillac (c.946-1003) these numerals became known in Western ‘Latin’ Europe. In 1202, the mathematician Fibonacci in his Liber Abaci [The Book of the Abacus] describes the notation and calculation method that he learned from his youth thus:

…following my introduction…to the nine digits of the Hindus, the knowledge of the art very much appealed to me before all others…Therefore, embracing more stringently that method of the Hindus [Modus Indorum], and taking stricter pains in its study…I have striven to compose this book. The nine Indian figures are: 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. With these nine figures, and with the sign 0… any number may be written…

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