Saturday, February 23, 2019

THE HISTORY OF MATHEMATICS by Archana Sarat




Mathematics has been a subject of immense speculation over the centuries. One either loves it or is petrified of it. Curious is the fact that those who are worried about numbers hardly ever get over their fear of them. It is for this reason that Archana Sarat, a CA by profession and a math and science buff, as she refers to herself, went back into the hoary past and dredged out ancient stories, only to find that this subject not only extends over centuries of time, but traverses across geographical borders as well. This might be a book written for children, but it does hold the interest of adults as well.

The book begins with the story of Ipiko who lived 40,000 years ago, and saved his tribe from being decimated by mammoths by using drawings and scratches which would later be seen as the first writing of mathematics. A subsequent chapter deals with Ipiko’s descendant, Neeraza, who hit upon the idea of tally marks for the very first time, a concept used liberally in today’s world.

Whether it is delving into the Indus Valley Civilization where scales and mathematical instruments were found, or recreating the use of clay envelopes and tokens in Mesopotamia, Archana Sarat keeps the interest alive with a harmonious blend of history and mathematics. Her forte as a story teller comes across as she employs simple language to put her ideas across.

In a country like India, where ‘yagnas’ were plentiful in the days of yore, rules were laid down about the construction of sacrificial altars, and even a small error could nullify the purpose of the sacrifice. This proved that mathematics played a significant role even back then.

The Diary Entries of Pythagoras tell us much about this personage who was not only the first known pure mathematician, but also a musician who played the lyre, a bit of an astronomer and even a litterateur. He explained the Pythagoras Theorem in an easy manner, and it is still being taught to modern day students. However, it is believed that he and the Pythagoreans refused to accept any belief that went against their own. Archana Sarat has an intriguing anecdote to illustrate this facet as well.

The names of Archimedes, Euclid, Hypatia, the first woman mathematician in the recorded history of the world, Fibonacci, Aryabhata, Brahmagupta, Bhaskara I and II have all been brought in, each of their stories embellished and presented with élan. The difference between classic physics and quantum physics has also been broken down into simple terms.

In short, this is a book that has been crafted to banish the fear of the bogey – Mathematics. The author links the Babylonian Clay Tablet in a way that a modern school girl can use it to do her calculations, and points out that the origins of the decimal numeral system and the discovery of zero were in India. By the end of the book, the reader feels a sense of pride and achievement, a feeling that should be engendered in the young readers of today.




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