India – World Guru of Mathematics (Part – 3)

Posted on August 22, 2011

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History of Decimal System in brief:

It is worth beginning with some quote from Laplace. Laplace wrote:-

Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace (23 March 1749 – 5 March 1827) - French Mathematician and Astronomer

 “The ingenious method of expressing every possible number using a set of ten symbols (each symbol having a place value and an absolute value) emerged in India. The idea seems so simple nowadays that its significance and profound importance is no longer appreciated. Its simplicity lies in the way it facilitated calculation and placed arithmetic foremost amongst useful inventions. the importance of this invention is more readily appreciated when one considers that it was beyond the two greatest men of Antiquity, Archimedes and Apollonius.”

Let us try to attempt the difficult task of trying to describe how the Indians developed this ingenious system. We will examine two different aspects of the Indian number systems. First we will examine the way that the numerals 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 evolved into the form which we recognize today. Of course it is important to realize that there is still no standard way of writing these numerals. The different fonts on this computer can produce many forms of these numerals which, although recognizable, differ markedly from each other. Many hand-written versions are even hard to recognize.

The second aspect of the Indian number system which we want to investigate here is the place value system which, as Laplace comments in the quote which we gave at the beginning of this article, seems “so simple that its significance and profound importance is no longer appreciated.”

The Ancient Babilonian Number System

We should also note the fact, which is important to both aspects, that the Indian number systems are almost exclusively base 10, as opposed to the Babylonian base 60 systems.

Beginning with the numerals themselves, we certainly know that today’s symbols took on forms close to that which they presently have in Europe in the 15th century. One of the important sources of information which we have about Indian numerals comes from al-Biruni. During the 1020s al-Biruni made several visits to India. Before he went there al-Biruni already knew of Indian astronomy and mathematics from Arabic translations of some Sanskrit texts. In India he made a detailed study of Hindu philosophy and he also studied several branches of Indian science and mathematics.

Al-Biruni ( 5 September 973 - 13 December 1048), Muslim Scholar and Polymath of 11th Century AD

Al-Biruni wrote 27 works on India and on different areas of the Indian sciences. In particular his account of Indian astronomy and mathematics is a valuable contribution to the study of the history of Indian science. Referring to the Indian numerals in a famous book written about 1030AD he wrote:-

“Whilst we use letters for calculation according to their numerical value, the Indians do not use letters at all for arithmetic. And just as the shape of the letters that they use for writing is different in different regions of their country, so the numerical symbols vary.”

It is reasonable to ask where the various symbols for numerals which al-Biruni saw originated. Historians trace them all back to the Brahmi numerals which came into being around the middle of the third century BC. Now these Brahmi numerals were not just symbols for the numbers between 1 and 9. The situation is much more complicated for it was not a place-value system so there were symbols for many more numbers. Also there were no special symbols for 2 and 3, both numbers being constructed from the sign for 1.

There were separate Brahmi symbols for 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 but there were also symbols for 10, 100, 1000, etc., as well as 20, 30, 40, etc., and 200, 300, 400,.. And so on.

….. Continues (The Bhrami Numerals)

Posted in: Mathematics