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Monday, 1 August 2011


The tradition of Babylonian algebra was revived by the Greeks in Alexandria, where Diophantus wrote a treatise called Arithmetica in about AD 200. He used a special sign for minus, and adopted the letter s for the unknown quantity.

Greek algebra in its turn spread to India, China and Japan. But it achieved its widest influence through the Arabic transmission of Greek culture.

‘Algebra’ was originally the name given to the study of equations. In the 9th century, the Arab mathematician Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi used the term al-jabr for the process of adding equal quantities to both sides of an equation. When his treatise was later translated into Latin, al-jabr became ‘algebra’ and the word was adopted as the name for the whole subject. 

Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde invented the equal sign in 1557 as he was fed up with writing “is equal to” in his equations. He chose the two lines (“=”) because “no two things can be more equal”. 

Recorde' introduced the equal sign in his book The Whetstone of Witte, whiche is the seconde parte of Arithmeteke: containing the extraction of rootes; the cossike practise, with the rule of equation; and the workes of Surde Nombers .With the publication of this book Recorde is credited with introducing algebra into England. 

In the 16th century, prestigious mathematics professorships could be "won" by defeating the current professor in a public algebra competition

Rene Descartes (1596-1650)'s system of mathematical co-ordinates (using numbers to locate a point on a surface) meant that geometrical problems could be solved by using algebra. He was also the first to use the last letters of the alphabet to designate unknown quantities and first letters to designate known ones. (as in a(b+c) )

Queen Victoria was so charmed with Alice in Wonderland that she requested something else by the same author be brought for her perusal. She was not amused when she received a copy of Lewis Carroll's Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry.

As a child Albert Einstein spent his evenings with his uncle working through algebraic problems.

When he published his equations of general relativity Einstein failed to notice that his theory predicted an expanding universe. Alexander Friedmann, a Russian mathematician, found to his amazement Einstein had made an elementary algebraic error that caused him to overlook a solution to his own equations. Einstein had divided by zero at one point in his calculations, a mathematical impossibility. 

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