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Enlightening SymbolsA Short History of Mathematical Notation and Its Hidden Powers$
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Joseph Mazur

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780691173375

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691173375.001.0001

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Curious Beginnings

Curious Beginnings

(p.3) Chapter 1 Curious Beginnings
Enlightening Symbols

Joseph Mazur

Princeton University Press

This chapter traces the beginnings of mathematical notation. For tens of thousands of years, humans had been leaving signification marks in their surroundings, gouges on trees, footprints in hard mud, scratches in skin, and even pigments on rocks. A simple mark can represent a thought, indicate a plan, or record a historical event. Yet the most significant thing about human language and writing is that speakers and writers can produce a virtually infinite set of sounds, declarations, notions, and ideas from a finite set of marks and characters. The chapter discusses the emergence of the alphabet, counting, and mathematical writing. It also considers the discovery of traces of Sumerian number writing on clay tablets in caves from Europe to Asia, the use of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and algebra problems in the Rhind (or Ahmes) papyrus that presented simple equations without any symbols other than those used to indicate numbers.

Keywords:   mathematical notation, language, writing, alphabet, counting, numbers, Egyptian hieroglyphics, algebra

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