The story of the search for the perfect number system
Published by Kenneth S. Doig
The Universal History of Numbers, 3 volumes by Georges Ifrah (2005 PB). Penguin, India.
“Finally it all came to pass as though across the ages and the civilizations, the human mind had tried all the possible solutions to the problem of writing numbers, before universally adopting the one which seemed the most abstract, the most perfected and the most effective of all.”
In these memorable words, the French-Moroccan scholar Georges Ifrah, the author of the monumental but somewhat flawed The Universal History of Numbers, sums up the many false starts by many civilizations until the Indians hit upon a method of doing arithmetic which surpassed and supplanted all others— one without which science, technology and everything else that we take for granted would be impossible. This was the positional or the place value number system. It is without a doubt the greatest mathematical discovery ever made, and arguably India’s greatest contribution to civilization.
The three-volume Indian edition is the English version of the 1994 French edition. It tells the story of humanity’s 3000-year struggle to solve the most basic and yet the most important mathematical problem of all— counting. The first two volumes recount the tortuous history of the long search that culminated in the discovery in India of the ‘modern’ system and its westward diffusion through the Arabs. The third volume, on the evolution of modern computers, is not on the same level as the first two. Better accounts exist.