Review from Publisher's Weekly
Mazur (Euclid in the Rainforest) gives readers the fascinating history behind the mathematical symbols we use, and completely take for granted, every day. Mathematical notation turns numbers into sentences—or, to the uninitiated, a mysterious and impenetrable code. Mazur says the story of math symbols begins some 3,700 years ago, in ancient Babylon, where merchants incised tallies of goods on cuneiform tablets, along with the first place holder—a blank space. Many early cultures used letters for both numbers and an alphabet, but convenient objects like rods, fingers, and abacus beads, also proved popular. Mazur shows how our “modern” system began in India, picking up the numeral “zero” on its way to Europe, where it came into common use in the 16th century, thanks to travelers and merchants as well as mathematicians like Fibonacci. Signs for addition, subtraction, roots, and equivalence followed, but only became standardized through the influence of scientists and mathematicians like René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz. Mazur’s lively and accessible writing makes what could otherwise be a dry, arcane history as entertaining as it is informative.
From Library Journal
The author surveys the work of earlier investigators and, where there is disagreement, gives fair weight to the different competing conjectures. For algebraic symbolism, Mazur nicely summarizes the historic record, which is much shorter and therefore less open to controversy. Today, this notation seems so natural that it is hard to imagine doing mathematical work without it. Mazur emphasizes the strength of the system, describing how, once expressed in its algebraic form, problems seem to solve themselves and even to suggest areas for further research. The concluding chapters discuss how the latest developments in cognitive science shed light on how using good notation helps to produce clear thinking. VERDICT Mazur delivers a solid exposition of an element of mathematics that is fundamental to its history. Recommended.