Philobiblon: Debt to the Arabs

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Debt to the Arabs

Most of us learnt at some early stage that we use "Arabic numbers", as opposed to the clunky Roman system of putting together Xs and Is. But from Jerry Brotton's The Renaissance Bazaar I have just learnt just how great a debt our maths (and indeed accounting) owe to the East (and that they should apparently be called Hindu-Arabic numbers).

The man who brought many of the concepts and symbols to Europe was Leonardo Pisan, known as Fibonacci, who is 1202 completed is Liber annaci. He explained:

"I joined my father ... as an officer in the customhouse located in Bugia [in Algeria] for the Pisan merchants who thronged to it. He had me marvellously instructed in the Arabic-Hindu numerals and calculation. I enjoyed so much the instruction that I later continued to study mathematics while on business trips to Egypt, Syria, Greece and Provence and there enjoyed discussions and disputations with the scholars of those places. Returning to Pisa I composed this book of 15 chapters which comprises what I feel is the best of Hindu, Arabic and Greek methods."

He brought to Europe not only the numbers, but carefully explained the decimal point system and methods of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division - (he also brought the signs for these operations to Europe), and their application to commercial problems such as weights and measures, bartering, interest and currency exchange.

The term "algebra" comes from the Arabic for restoration "al-jabru". The term "algorithm" comes from the Latinised name of the Persian astronomer Abu Ja'far Mohammed ibn Musa al-Khowarizmi.

(Pages 42-44)

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