Enlightening Symbols: A Short History of Mathematical Notation and its Hidden Powers by Joseph Mazur - review by Brian Rotman

Brian Rotman

X Marks the Spot

Enlightening Symbols: A Short History of Mathematical Notation and its Hidden Powers

By

Princeton University Press 285pp £19.95 order from our bookshop
 

Enlightening Symbols is mostly a historical study of the mathematical symbols we encounter in school arithmetic and elementary algebra, informed by a larger interest in the formidable utility mathematical symbols possess. What it offers is not a general or theoretical study of mathematical symbols per se (which the title might suggest), but an informative, highly readable and scholarly history of a small but fundamental subset of symbols familiar from the schoolroom in two parts, followed by a third which attempts to bring to light their hidden power.

The first part tracks the writing of numbers, chiefly by Greek, Indian, Arab and Hebrew mathematicians, homing in on the symbolic marvel of zero as a number and placeholder in the familiar Hindu-Arabic system of numerals. Joseph Mazur takes us from the first recorded known use of zero as a

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