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History of Mathematics
Nothing at Last - Indian Mathematics



Nothing at Last - Indian Mathematics
Reading Level
     edHelper's suggested reading level:   grades 9 to 12
     Flesch-Kincaid grade level:   11.61

Vocabulary
     challenging words:    abacus, al-jabr, Aryabhata, astrologers, cosine, fine-tuned, glassblower, interplay, placeholder, quadratic, sifr, summation, zephirus, algebra, caravan, compile
     content words:    Five Astronomical Canons, Other Indian


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Nothing at Last - Indian Mathematics
By Colleen Messina
  

1     When you do your algebra, you use Arabic numbers instead of hieroglyphics or Roman numerals. Arabic numbers were invented in India, but no one knows their exact origin. Indians loved astronomy, like the Greeks, and Indians had rope stretchers, like the Egyptians. Babylonian mathematics also influenced Indian mathematicians. However, in 500 AD, the Indians came up with something completely original: Arabic numbers. No one knows exactly who designed the symbols, but one legend said that a glassblower created the shapes of the Arabic numerals.
 
2     The Arabic system used a base of ten and was more efficient than any prior mathematical system for several reasons. Each number had a separate symbol and name. Combinations of these ten symbols and names created larger numbers. Arabic numbers could go on forever, rather than stopping at 900 like the Greek system, or at 1,000 like the Roman system. Each number stood on its own, unlike the Roman system that combined more than one symbol to form larger numbers. The Indians could add, subtract, divide, and multiply numbers without the Roman abacus. Sometimes there were contests between mathematicians who used the abacus and ones who used the Arabic numbers. Those who used Arabic numbers won easily!
 
3     One of the greatest advantages of the Arabic numeral system is that at last there was a symbol for nothing. Ancient peoples did not need a zero because they used numbers for counting small quantities, but a zero was necessary as a placeholder in more complex calculations. The word zero comes from an Arabic word, sifr, which means "empty." When western scholars described the new number to their colleagues, they turned sifr into the Latin-sounding word zephirus. This word became "zero." Zero replaced the blank space that early number systems used for "nothing."

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