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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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The Last of the Magicians

The Last of the Magicians

(p.169) Chapter 19 The Last of the Magicians
Enlightening Symbols

Joseph Mazur

Princeton University Press

This chapter discusses Isaac Newton's contributions to algebra and mathematics, and particularly in terms of using symbols. It first examines Newton's idea of unknown variables as quantities flowing along a curve. Fluents, as he called them (from the Latin fluxus, which means “fluid”), were very close to the things that we now call dependent variables, our x's, but limited by their dependence on time. Newton thought of curves as “flows of points” that represented quantities. According to Newton, the fundamental task of calculus was to find the fluxions of given fluents and the fluents of given fluxions. The chapter also considers Newton's work on infinitesimals and how his invention of calculus advanced a wide range of fields such as architecture, astronomy, chemistry, optics, and thermodynamics. It also describes some of the major developments that occurred in the fifty years following Newton's death.

Keywords:   calculus, Isaac Newton, algebra, mathematics, symbols, fluents, dependent variables, curves, fluxions, infinitesimals

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