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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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Vowels and Consonants

Vowels and Consonants

(p.141) Chapter 15 Vowels and Consonants
Enlightening Symbols

Joseph Mazur

Princeton University Press

This chapter focuses on the evolution of the vowel–consonant notation. In particular, it discusses François Viète's contribution to algebra through his use of vowels to represent unknowns and consonants to represent known quantities. Viète, a French mathematician, expressed his famous computation for π‎ in proposition II of his Isagoge. Even Christoff Rudolff and Nicolas Chuquet had no proper notation for expressing such an infinite sum of nested square roots. Viète was showing us an intimate link between Greek geometry and algebra, a link from the mathematics of lines, figures, and solids to the underlying channels of symbolic algebra. The chapter also considers Viète's work on what are now called “homogeneous equations” as well as the significance of his lettering system to symbolic algebra.

Keywords:   vowel-–consonant notation, François Viète, algebra, notation, nested square roots, geometry, mathematics, symbolic algebra, homogeneous equations, known quantities

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