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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Do we owe to the Arabs? Yes we do, in the case of Western Numerals!!

Have you ever tried to calculate without the Western numerals? That is 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9? Well the ancient Romans had hard times calculating with their numerals. Try adding MMCCCXDV plus MCLDXII. Now try adding the same value in Western numerals: 2345 + 1462. The answer is 3807. A calculation very easily done in modern times, it took an ancient form of abacus to perform the addition in Roman times. But in Europe, these Roman numerals were present until around 1200’s C.E.

What we call Western numerals today, is also called Arabic numerals, Hindu-Arabic Numerals or more precisely and correctly, Hindu Numerals. Yes you bet, they come all the way from India. The Indian numeral system was considered to better because it had a number other numeral systems of that time did not have: The Zero (0).

Although the Mayans had already a Zero in their numerals around 4 B.C.E, the Indians developed the use of their philosophical concept of void as Zero, circa 5 C.E., affecting cultures all around the Euro-Asian Continent, and the present-day financial system would not have existed if it were not for the Hindi concept of Void or Sunyata. According to Buddhism, the world is Void of definite singular identities. Instead, the world is an inter-dependent and mutually dependent reality.

With the invention of the Zero as a number and not as concept, huge astronomical sums now became possible, and calculating fractions became as easy as dealing with whole numbers alone. The easiness and practicability of the Hindu numerals spread across Asia like fire, until it reached Baghdad, an important ancient cultural and centre of trade.

The Arabs had a reason to adopt the Hindu numerals. The Islamic law stipulates that inheritances be divided, according to the number of wives relative to the number of sons and daughters. This surmounted to a high amount of fractional numbers to calculate. The Zero-possessing Hindu numerals were most fit for that.

In early 13th century, Leonardo Fibonacci publishes Liber Abaci (Book of Calculation). Fibonacci grew in present-day Algeria, where his father, Guglielmo Bonaccio ran a trading post. There, Fibonacci got in contact with the Hindu numerals, but by that time, known as the Arabic numerals.

Fibonacci’s book of calculation presented the Arabic numerals to European merchants, in order to help them calculate huge numbers and fraction without using an abacus. The Arabic numerals were then adopted by the currency exchange tables (banca, banks) widely spread in the Italian cities, because each city had a money system. But because people could not understand the Arabic numerals, they became suspicious about the transactions made by the tables and they would call the authorities to “ruptus” (break in Latim) the table (bank + rupta = bankrupt), literally breaking the tables where the currencies were exchanged.

Banned by authorities, the Arabic numerals did not fare well until 1300’s, when the Pope allowed merchants to charge interest rates. Because of the easiness of counting fractions generated by the percentage of the interests, the private Italian lenders, started to ostensibly use the Arabic numerals. This led to the foundation of the first Commercial Banks in history.

That is when the Arabic numerals start to slowly replace the abacus dependent Roman numerals across Europe.

Brief and to the Point:

Out of something that is worth nothing (Zero), we got a numeral system that represents everything on the planet and far beyond. We wouldn’t have financial markets today and neither have made technological progress without the invention of Zero. How about computers then, that runs on Ones and Zeroes?

Do we owe the Arabs? Yes, we do. But the Arabs owe the Hindus. Everyone owes something to someone. There are no stand-alone cultures. We all live in an inter-dependent and inter-related world. It is null to think that there are individual existences. But this nullity gave rise to the much respected ZERO!!


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