A brief history of numbers and counting, Part 2: Indian invention of zero was huge in development of math
It’s not known for certain how Arabic numbers came to the Islamic world, but the most prevalent theory states that one day an ambassador from India arrived in Baghdad and presented the Kaliph with the greatest gift he could think of: Arabic numbers.
Using Arabic numbers Muslim mathematicians invented entirely new methods of mathematics. Beside just simple fractions they turned Arabic numbers into quadratic equations, and algebra, and these numeric breakthroughs enabled science, mathematics and astronomy to reach new levels in the Middle East.
By 1200 AD, Arabic numerals made their way to North Africa, and from there, thanks to the curious son of an Italian merchant, they would soon make their way to Europe.
Leonardo Pisano Bigollo, who would later be known as Fibonacci, had been raised using Roman numerals. He was first introduced to Arabic numbers in Algeria while traveling with his merchant father. Fibonacci became enthralled with this new method of counting, and its very practical and plastic abilities. He introduced Arabic numbers to Europe when he returned to Italy. In 1202 he published a book of mathematics called "Liber Abaci" and it was through that book that Europe was introduced to Arabic numbers.
The Roman numeral system was deeply entrenched in Europe, and it took awhile for the Arabic system to catch on. The name for zero in Italian was cipha, and it was regarded with such suspicion that it became the word for secret code: cipher. What finally caused the Arabic number system to catch on was good old-fashioned human greed, and a merchant class that could use it to quickly, easily and more precisely calculate interest on their goods and properties.
Prior to the Catholic Reformation, Christians weren’t allowed to charge interest on loans because the Catholic Church said it was a sin to do so. But after the Catholic Reformation charging interest was allowed and the merchant class quickly adopted the new Arabic system because interest could be calculated out to 12 decimal points, which worked to the advantage of the merchants. An abacus, the old system of counting under the Romans, could only calculate interest out to two decimal points.
From there, use of Arabic numbers spread to conquer the world.
The next big evolution in numbers came in Germany in 1679. German mathematician Gottfried Liebnitz invented a system of counting that used only ones and zeros; what would eventually be called the binary system. In the binary system ones stand for something, and zeros stand for nothing.
Liebnitz even went so far as to design a machine that would count in binary. The digital age, it seemed, had arrived. But — and this is big — though he designed his binary machine he never built it, and the world would have to wait another 265 years before one and zero would usher in the modern world.
The machine that would usher in the digital age was named Collosus, built in England in 1944, during World War II, as a code-breaking apparatus. Colossus was able to perform millions of rapid calculations, and with its help the Allies cracked numerous Nazi codes. Thanks to Collosus, Ally code-breakers often knew what the Germans said even before Hitler did. Some experts believe that Collosus may have shortened the war by as much as two years.
From there the binary system was adopted and used in every computer ever built. Computer code has literally made possible the Internet, space exploration and indeed modern life.
To read additional science stories by Steven Law go to www.curiosity101.com
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