# Enlightening Symbols: A Short History of Mathematical Notation and Its Hidden Powers

## Joseph Mazur

### Abstract

While all of us regularly use basic mathematical symbols such as those for plus, minus, and equals, few of us know that many of these symbols weren't available before the sixteenth century. What did mathematicians rely on for their work before then? And how did mathematical notations evolve into what we know today? This book explains the fascinating history behind the development of our mathematical notation system. It shows how symbols were used initially, how one symbol replaced another over time, and how written math was conveyed before and after symbols became widely adopted. Traversing ma ... More

While all of us regularly use basic mathematical symbols such as those for plus, minus, and equals, few of us know that many of these symbols weren't available before the sixteenth century. What did mathematicians rely on for their work before then? And how did mathematical notations evolve into what we know today? This book explains the fascinating history behind the development of our mathematical notation system. It shows how symbols were used initially, how one symbol replaced another over time, and how written math was conveyed before and after symbols became widely adopted. Traversing mathematical history and the foundations of numerals in different cultures, the book looks at how historians have disagreed over the origins of the number system for the past two centuries. It follows the transfigurations of algebra from a rhetorical style to a symbolic one, demonstrating that most algebra before the sixteenth century was written in prose or in verse employing the written names of numerals. It also investigates the subconscious and psychological effects that mathematical symbols have had on mathematical thought, moods, meaning, communication, and comprehension. It considers how these symbols influence us (through similarity, association, identity, resemblance, and repeated imagery), how they lead to new ideas by subconscious associations, how they make connections between experience and the unknown, and how they contribute to the communication of basic mathematics. From words to abbreviations to symbols, this book shows how math evolved to the familiar forms we use today.

*Keywords: *
notation,
algebra,
mathematics,
symbols,
number system,
numerals

### Bibliographic Information

Print publication date: 2016 |
Print ISBN-13: 9780691173375 |

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: January 2018 |
DOI:10.23943/princeton/9780691173375.001.0001 |