The Universal History of Numbers: a Book Inspired by a Kid's Question

One of the 100 or so books that shaped a Century of Science of American Scientist's list; The Universal History of Numbers of Georges Ifrah.
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The Universal History of NumbersGeorges Ifrah/Amazon

The road of science is paved with questions, and the most interesting ones mostly come from children. A Universal History of Numbers by Georges Ifrah became a pioneering book resulting from the curiosity of children. Ifrah wanted his students to feel at ease and never embarrassed by asking questions. Hence, he compiled a list of some of his most frequently asked questions and spent a decade answering them.

The Universal History of Numbers: an international bestseller

Ifrah faced questions that would make any teacher hesitant, like "Who invented zero?" or "How did the Romans do math?" His kids certainly weren't aware that they'd help compile a critically acclaimed work of nonfiction. Since the book's publication, it's been on several lists, including "100 or so Books that shaped a Century of Science" of American Scientist's list, referring to the 20th century.

Source: Georges Ifrah/Amazon

"Where do numbers come from?"

Following the years, Ifrah visited numerous museums, corresponded with anthropologists, historians, linguists, archeologists and read hundreds of articles on every aspect of numerals. Having no financial backing, he worked as a delivery boy, a waiter, and even a watchman to 'keep mind and body together' in his words.

Anthropology of numbers

The result of this self-imposed mission is a monumental work of over 650 pages, graced with hundreds of illustrations of documents, named as A Universal History of Numbers. In his book, Ifrah said the oldest human invention is a system of accounting that used animal bones and notches. Those have been found by archeologists in Western Europe and also determined to between 20.000 and 30.000 years old. He also points out that the positional system got re-invented at least four times by Babylonians, Chinese, Mayans, and Hindus.

Source: Georges Ifrah/Amazon

"Sir, who invented the zero?"

According to Georges Ifrah, only the Indian zero had roughly the same potential as the one we use nowadays. In his book, he points out that the Mayans and Babylonians had an idea of zero within their grasp, but they used it only to separate between the numbers 16 and 106. In other words, the Hindus recognized that zero is a number like any other, not just a symbol for the empty slot. This was the crucial step in creating the various computational algorithms that we learn in school today.

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Granted, some of the parts of the book aren't easy to read at all. Often Ifrah goes into the tiny details in analyzing some ancient documents dealing with numbers. This quantity of details might stretch the reader's patience.  However, both  From One to Zero: A Universal History of Numbers and also The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer are worth the read. They can help anyone understand the evolution of science, engineering and human civilization on earth.


To jump into the world of this amazing world, and see the other books of Georges Ifrah. You can also buy all via Amazon as well.

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