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

Paperback | 2016 | $19.95 | £14.95 | ISBN: 9780691173375
Hardcover | 2014 | $30.95 | £25.95 | ISBN: 9780691154633
312 pp. | 6 x 9 | 8 halftones. 38 line illus. 4 tables.
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While all of us regularly use basic math 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? In Enlightening Symbols, popular math writer Joseph Mazur explains the fascinating history behind the development of our mathematical notation system. He 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, Mazur looks at how historians have disagreed over the origins of the numerical system for the past two centuries. He 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. Mazur also investigates the subconscious and psychological effects that mathematical symbols have had on mathematical thought, moods, meaning, communication, and comprehension. He 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.

Joseph Mazur is the author of Euclid in the Rainforest (Plume), which was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, Zeno's Paradox (Plume), What's Luck Got to Do with It? (Princeton), and Fluke (Basic).


"Mazur (Euclid in the Rainforest) gives readers the fascinating history behind the mathematical symbols we use, and completely take for granted, every day. Mathematical notation turns numbers into sentences--or, to the uninitiated, a mysterious and impenetrable code. Mazur says the story of math symbols begins some 3,700 years ago, in ancient Babylon, where merchants incised tallies of goods on cuneiform tablets, along with the first place holder--a blank space. Many early cultures used letters for both numbers and an alphabet, but convenient objects like rods, fingers, and abacus beads, also proved popular. Mazur shows how our 'modern' system began in India, picking up the numeral 'zero' on its way to Europe, where it came into common use in the 16th century, thanks to travelers and merchants as well as mathematicians like Fibonacci. Signs for addition, subtraction, roots, and equivalence followed, but only became standardized through the influence of scientists and mathematicians like René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz. Mazur's lively and accessible writing makes what could otherwise be a dry, arcane history as entertaining as it is informative."--Publishers Weekly

"[A] fascinating narrative. . . . This is a nuanced, intelligently framed chronicle packed with nuggets--such as the fact that Hindus, not Arabs, introduced Arabic numerals. In a word: enlightening."--George Szpiro, Nature

"Mazur begins by illustrating how the ancient Incas and Mayans managed to write specific, huge numbers. Then, for more than 200 pages, he traces the history of division signs, square roots, pi, exponents, graph axes and other symbols in the context of cognition, communication, and analysis."--Washington Post

"Mazur delivers a solid exposition of an element of mathematics that is fundamental to its history."--Library Journal

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