The Indo-Arabic Number System

Here are two articles about inventions that were listed Book Review: The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2000 Years book that I wanted to note down in my blog for future reference.

The reason I wanted to note down is, I personally find that numeric system that we use today has stood the test of time and is limitless. And my second reason could be due to a emotional attachment and association that is imbibed in me.

V. S. Ramachandran

My favorite invention is the place-value notation system combined with the the user of a symbol 0 for zero to denote a nonexistant number; this marks the birth of modern mathematics. This system was invented in India, probably during the first millennium before Christ, but was first systematized by the Hindu mathematician and astronomer Aryabhata I at the tail end of the fifth century and then transmitted to the West via the Arabs (hence the phrase "Arabic Numerals"). Before this time, even simple arithmetic was tedious and time-consuming (as when the Romans and Greeks used the cumbersome "Roman numerals" - sometime still used in the west). And math, of course, is essential for all science. Without the early invention of zero and place value as well as the use of the a symbol to denote an unknown quantity in an equation (algebra), also from India, subsequent developments could not have occurred. There would be no calculus, no newtonian or Galilean science, no computers, and essentially no modern world.

Keith Devlin

"What is the most important invention in the past two thousand years?" is one of those questions that no correct answer - like "What is the best novel / symphony / movie?" - But if I had to make a choice, it would be the Hindu-Arabic number system, which reached essentially it's present form in the sixth century. Without it, Galileo would have been unable to begin the quantificational study of nature which we now call science, and we would not have had calculus, another major invention of the period in question.

Before of it's linguistic structure, the Hindu-Arabic number system allows humans who have an innate linguistic fluency but only a very primitive number sense to use their ability with language to handle numbers of virtually any useful magnitude, with as much precision as required. Today there is scarcely any aspect of life that does not depend on our ability to handle numbers efficiently and accurately. True, we now use computers to do much of our number crunching, but without the Hindu-Arabic number system we would not have any computers.

In addition to it's use in arithmetic and science, the Hindu-Arabic number system is the only genuinely universal language on earth - apart, perhaps, from the Windows Operating System, which has achieved the near universal adoption of a conceptually and technologically poor product by the sheer force of market dominance. By contrast, the Hindu-Arabic number system gained worldwide acceptance because it is far better designed and much more efficient for human usage than any other number system.


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