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The Story Of Our Numbers [Excerpt]

Courtesy:- Shashikant Joshi / Swarajya.

Story of numbers

The history of mathematics is a vast topic which can never be studied perfectly since much of the work of ancient times remains undiscovered or has been lost through time. However, there is also much that is known and many important discoveries have been made over the past 150 years that debunk the theory that mathematics is a European “invention”. The truth is being restored in academic circles about the historical development of mathematics and India’s contribution to it.

Once the dots are connected, it is not difficult to imagine the continuation of the same pursuit of knowledge and excellence of solutions by Indus, Vedic and post-Vedic Indian minds. When seen in this thread, it seems all but natural to recognise the advancements of the Indus Valley civilization (standardized weights in binary sequence, the world’s first measuring ruler, proto-dentistry, advanced metallurgy) to those of Baudhayana in 800 BCE (the so-called Pythagoras theorem), Pingala in 300 BCE (combinatorics, the mathematics of finite or countable dicrete structures), Aryabhatta in 499 CE (trigonometry) and Madhava in 1400 CE (calculus) with many in between.

While some will always turn a blind eye to facts staring in the face, there are many who would like to know the reality but can’t access or comprehend the greatness of the work. I am not adding any original research of mine to the history of math, and have drawn a lot from the wonderful and pivotal book, The History of Ancient Indian Mathematics by C.N. Srinivas Iyengar. My humble contribution to this discussion is merely to present the relevant facts in a simple way and connect the dots.


Labelling Science

The labels used in the study of history of science or math are Egyptian, Greek, Mesopotamian, Indian, European, Hindu, Islamic or Christian. I think it is unfair to use any religion’s name with scientific development. None of the book-based religions fostered or encouraged science; in fact, they hindered and quashed science as is evident from the history of Europe.

While it is okay to refer to Greek or European math and Arabic or Indian math, it is not right to say Islamic or Christian math. Only in India do you find that the pursuit of faith and the pursuit of fact went side by side amicably.

math swarajya

Giving Credit Where It Is Due

One might also wonder if it makes any difference to world hunger and global warming if this record is set straight. While academic researchers know the true history, does it matter if our school and college students know it as well? After all, these are trivial things like basic trigonometry or Pythagoras theorem or zero. Math has come such a long way ahead, who cares if it was Pythagoras or Baudhayana?

But, if it really doesn’t matter, then why do we even call it Pythagoras theorem, Euclid’s geometry or Newton’s power series for sine? We should simply call them by their function, like the Hypotenuse theorem, geometry, or Power Series for sine.

Why should we take the trouble to remember the people who discover or do something for the first time, in science or in life?  Even in divine matters, we keep comparing who said what and when, and who said it first! Maybe we do so to give credit where it is due? And human achievements inspire us?

Why should India not have its inspiration? And have its credit where it is due? Everyone with a basic education in sciences should know about the great Indian minds. Why should some Indian names not become household names, at least in India, through the education system? The first step towards that is to understand, realize and appreciate how our ancestors pursued knowledge.

Indian scholars made vast contributions to mathematical astronomy and thus contributed mightily to the development of arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry and secondarily geometry (although this topic was well developed by the Greeks) and combinatorics.

Perhaps most remarkable were the developments in the fields of infinite series expansions of trigonometric expressions and differential calculus. Surpassing all these achievements however was the development of decimal numeration and the place value system, which, without doubt, stand together as the most remarkable developments in the history of mathematics. The decimal place value system allowed the subject of mathematics to be developed in ways that, to put it simply, would not have been possible otherwise. We would still be a ‘humanind’ as depicted (so frightfully entertainingly) in Asterix comics.

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Image Credit: Swarajyamag.com

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