Sign up FAST! Login

A brief history of mathematical symbols

Stashed in: Math!, History of Tech!, Poetry!, Mathy

To save this post, select a stash from drop-down menu or type in a new one:

Numbers are poetry:

When negative numbers were first accepted as numbers, there was great debate about how to write them. As late as the 19th century, some writers suggested that negative numbers should be written as positive numbers flipped horizontally. Imagine the confusion over numbers containing a 0 or 8, or letters like b, d, p, q or w. For a short time negatives were written with a short line above them, and for another short time negative numbers were written with the waxing moon symbol , and positive numbers with the waning moon.

These days we have Maxwell’s equations: four interrelated equations that tell us how electric and magnetic fields relate to charge density and current density. They form a mathematical poem, written entirely in symbols. That poem holds the key to a great deal of creative thinking about electrodynamics, and, ultimately, to the most utilitarian needs of modern life. It can even tell us something about why our mobile phones work. Try to write that poem entirely in English. It can be done, but who then would understand it?

You May Also Like: