Friday, March 31, 2006

Story of 1

Last night on PBS I watched part of a fascinating show about the history of numbers. It was very entertaining as well as informative. There was a lot of humor and cute graphics that helped illustrate the points. I missed about the first half of the show, but when I started watching it ONE was in Greece with Archimedes but was abducted by the 'backwards' Romans. I've never been a fan of Roman numerals, and now I understand why. They are cumbersome and limited, though they do look nice on clocks and watches. Not to disrespect the Romans, however, who achieved great feats of engineering despite their numerals.

I've often wondered about how numbers came to be and how they have affected the intellectual development of humanity. There probably were brief lessons on this somewhere in my education, but maybe not because most math classes focused on using numbers and not how they evolved.

And it was in India that ZERO was 'invented'. Until then 'nothing' wasn't counted. The show explained the cultural, and often religious, concepts that influenced the evolution of numbers at different times in history. In Indian thought very large amounts of things were commonplace so it followed that they would want to develop a way of 'counting' these huge numbers. It was there that 'Arabic' numbers really came to be, in addition to the revolutionary Zero.

The show also discussed Leibniz who 'invented' the binary (using only One and Zero) system on which all of our cyber communications are based. I won't pretend to totally understand how the binary system works, but boy am I glad it does!

Anyone who is interested in the history of thought and the cultural influences that spawned revolutionary ideas in counting and accounting and calculating, as well as how those ideas in turn revolutionized the world, would enjoy this show. Order it or look for it a your local library or video store.

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