A brief history of numbers and counting, Part 1: Mathematics advanced with civilization
The Egyptians were the first civilization to invent different symbols for different numbers. They had a symbol for one, which was just a line. The symbol for ten was a rope. The symbol for a hundred was a coil of rope. They also had numbers for a thousand and ten thousand. The Egyptians were the first to dream up the number one million, and its symbol was a prisoner begging for forgiveness, which was a person on its knees, hands upraised in the air, in a posture of humility.
Greece made further contributions to the world of numbers and counting, much of it under the guidance of Pythagoras. He studied in Egypt and upon returning to Greece established a school of math, introducing Greece to mathematical concepts already prevalent in Egypt. Pythagoras was the first man to come up with the idea of odd and even numbers. To him, the odd numbers were male; the evens were female. He is most famous for his Pythagorean theorem, but perhaps his greatest contribution to math was laying the groundwork for Greek mathematicians who would follow him.
Pythagoras was one of the world’s first theoretical mathematicians, but it was another famous Greek mathematician, Archimedes, who took theoretical mathematics to a level no one had ever taken it to before. Archimedes is considered to the greatest mathematician of antiquity and one of the greatest of all time. Archimedes enjoyed doing experiments with numbers and playing games with numbers.
But as trivial as his math games may have seemed to outsiders they often led to results that proved practical in the real world, some of which we still benefit from today. One example: Archimedes wondered if you could turn the surface of a sphere into a cylinder, and if you did, what would be the difference in area covered? Archimedes successfully worked this problem out, and to him that was the end of it. But thanks to the formulas he left behind, later mapmakers were able to turn the surface of the globe into a flat map.
Archimedes is also famous for his Archimede’s screw, which is a circular inclined plane (a screw) inside a tube that pumps water from one level to a higher level. He is equally famous for inventing a method of determining the volume of an object with an irregular shape. The answer came to him while he was bathing. He was so excited he leapt from his tub and ran naked through the streets screaming “Eureka!,” which is Greek for “I have found it.”
Archimedes made many, many other mathematical contributions, but they are too numerous to mention here during a brief history of numbers.
The Greek’s role in mathematics ended, quite literally, with Archimedes. He was killed by a Roman soldier during the Siege of Syracuse in 212 BC. And thus ended the golden age of mathematics in the classical world. Under the rule of Rome, mathematics entered a dark age, and for a couple different reasons.
In Part 2 we’ll look at numbers from the mathematical dark ages of the Romans to the modern digital age.
If you'd like to read Steven Law's previous science articles go to www.curiosity101.com.
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