Archive for December, 2011

What is algebra good for?

The fifth in a series. See the November 20 entry, “What is algebra?” for the first, the December 13 entry “When did algebra begin?” for the second, the December 19 entry “The  golden age of Arabic mathematics” for the third, and the December 25 entry “al-Khwārizmī for the fourth.

Modern algebra is generally acknowledged to have begun with the appearance around 830 CE of al-Khwārizmī’s book al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa’l-muqābala. What better source can there be to find the answer to that perennial student question, “What is this stuff good for?” In the introduction to his seminal work, al-Khwārizmī stated that its purpose was to explain:

… what is easiest and most useful in arithmetic, such as men constantly require in cases of inheritance, legacies, partition, lawsuits, and trade, and in all their dealings with one another, or where the measuring of lands, the digging of canals, geometrical computations, and other objects of various sorts and kinds are concerned.

It doesn’t get much more practical and useful than that! Either in 830 or today! Throughout history, the nations that led the world in mathematics led the world in commerce, industry, and science. In the 9th century, Baghdad was the commercial, industrial, and scientific center of world. In the 13th century, the leadership role crossed the Mediterranean to Italy, then over the ensuing centuries continued gradually westwards through Europe, crossing the Atlantic to the East coast of the US in the middle third of the 20th century, arriving in California in the 1980s, and likely to cross the Pacific (back) to China within the next couple of decades.

Al-Khwārizmī’s strong emphasis on practical applications typified Arabic texts of the time, every bit as much as the intense focus on applications of mathematics and science you find in today’s Silicon Valley.

The book was divided into three parts. The first part was devoted to algebra, giving the rules together with 39 worked problems, all abstract. Then came a short section on the rule of three and mensuration. Two mensuration problems dealing with surveying were solved with algebra. Finally, al-Khwārizmī presented a long section on inheritance problems solved by algebra.

The term al-jabr (“restoration” or “completion”) in al-Khwārizmī’s title refers to a procedure whose modern counterpart is eliminating negative terms from a (linear or quadratic) equation by adding an appropriate qantity to both sides of the equation. For example, using one of al-Khwārizmī’s own examples (but expressed using modern symbolic notation), al-jabr  transforms

 x2 = 40x – 4x2


5x2 = 40x.

The other key term in the title, al-muqābala (“confrontation”) refers to the process of eliminating identical quantities from the two sides of the equation. For example, (again in modern notation) one application of al-muqābala simplifies

50 + 3x + x2 = 29 + 10x


21 + 3x + x2 = 10x

and a second application simplifies that to

21 + x2 = 7x.

Procedurally (but not conceptually) these are the methods we use today to simplify and solve equations. Hence, a meaningful, modern English translation for Hisâb al-Jabr wa’l-Muqābala would be, simply, “Calculation with Algebra.”

The symbolic notation is not the only difference between medieval algebra and its present-day counterpart. The medieval mathematicians did not acknowledge negative numbers. For instance, they viewed “ten and a thing” (10 + x) as a composite expression (it entails two types of number: “simple numbers” and “roots”), but they did not see “ten less a thing” (10 – x) as composite. Rather, they thought of it as a single quantity, a “diminished” 10, or a 10 with a “defect” of x. The 10 retained its identity, even though x had been taken away from it. When an x was added to both sides of an equation, the diminished 10, (10 – x), was restored to its rightful value. Hence the terminology.

The first degree unknown, our x, was usually called shay’ (“thing”), but occasionally jidhr (“origin” or “base”, also “root” of a tree, giving rise to our present-day expression “root of an equation”). The second power, our x2, was called māl (a sum of money/property/ wealth). Units were generally counted in dirhams, a denomination of silver coin, occasionally simply “in number”.  For example, al-Khwārizmī’s (rhetorical) equation “a hundred ten and two māls less twenty-two things equals fifty-four dirhams” corresponds to our symbolic equation 110 + 2x2 – 22x = 54.

Arabic authors typically explained the methods of algebra in two stages. First they provided an explanation of the names of the powers, described six simplified forms of equations and their solutions, and gave rules for operating on polynomials and roots. They then followed this introduction by a collection of solved problems which illustrated the methods.

Their solutions followed a standard template:

Stage 1: an unknown quantity was named (usually referred to as a “thing”), and an equation was set up.

Stage 2: the equation was simplifed to one of six canonical types.

Stage 3: the appropriate procedure was applied to arrive at the answer.

Because they allowed only positive coefficients, they had to consider six equation types, rather than the single template ax2 + bx + c = 0   we use today:

(1) māls equals roots (in modern terms, ax2 = bx),

(2) māls equals numbers (ax2 = c),

(3) roots equals numbers (bx = c),

(4) māls and roots equals numbers (ax2 + bx = c),

(5) māls  and numbers equals roots (ax2 + c = bx),

(6) māls equals roots and numbers (ax2 = bx + c).

We see how al-Khwārizmī  used the two simplification steps in Stage 2, al-jabr wa’l-muqābala, (“restoration and confrontation”) in his solution to a quadratic equation, which he described in these words:

 If some one say: “You divide ten into two parts: multiply the one by itself; it will be equal to the other taken eighty-one times.” Computation: You say, ten less thing, multiplied by itself, is a hundred plus a square less twenty things, and this is equal to eighty-one things. Separate the twenty things from a hundred and a square, and add them to eighty-one. It will then be a hundred plus a square, which is equal to a hundred and one roots. Halve the roots; the moiety is fifty and a half. Multiply this by itself, it is two thousand five hundred and fifty and a quarter. Subtract from this one hundred; the remainder is two thousand four hundred and fifty and a quarter. Extract the root from this; it is forty-nine and a half. Subtract this from the moiety of the roots, which is fifty and a half. There remains one, and this is one of the two parts.

The American scholar Jeffrey Oaks has translated this (fairly literally) as follows, adding headings to assist the reader:

If [someone] said, ten:  you divided it into two parts.  You multiplied one of the parts by itself, which is the same as eighty-one times the other.

Setting up and simplifying the equation
The rule for this is that you say ten less a thing by itself is a hundred and a mal less twenty things [which] equal eighty-one things. Restore the hundred and a mal by the twenty things and add them to the eighty-one [things].  This yields:  a hundred and a mal equal a hundred roots and a root.

Solving the simplified equation
So halve the roots, which yields fifty and a half, and multiply it by itself, which yields two thousand five hundred fifth and a fourth. Subtract from it the hundred, leaving two thousand four hundred fifty and a fourth.  Take its [square] root, which is forty-nine and a half. Subtract it from half the roots, which is fifty and a half.  There remains one, which is one of the two parts.

Using modern notation, and substituting the letter x for “thing”, al-Khwārizmī was solving the equation

(10 − x)2 = 81x

which can be written in the equivalent form

x2 + 100 = 101x

Al-Khwārizmī did not state the equation

(10 − x)2 = 81x

Rather, he set up the equation

100 + x2 – 20x = 81x.

Nothing like the equation (10 − x)2 = 81x was ever stated in medieval algebra; the left side of such an expression entails what was then an unrealized operation. Medieval algebraists worked out all operations before stating equations, so al-Khwārizmī did not begin with (10 − x)2 = 81x, as we would, rather he first worked out the multiplication.

Having demonstrated methods for solving linear and quadratic equations, al-Khwārizmī proceeded to examine how to manipulate algebraic expressions. For example he showed how to multiply out specific numerical instances

(a + bx) (c + dx)

expressing everything in words, not symbols.

He ended the first section of the book by presenting the solutions to 39 problems.

In the following section, al-Khwārizmī presented solutions to some mensuration problems, including rules for finding the area of figures such as the circle and for finding the volume of solids such as the sphere, cone, and pyramid.

The final part of the book dealt with the complicated Islamic rules for inheritance, which involved the solution of linear equations.

* * *

COMING UP: In the final article in this series I’ll summarize some of the amazing developments in algebra that were made in the Arabic period subsequent to al-Khwārizmī.


The fourth in a series. See the November 20 entry, “What is algebra?” for the first, the December 13 entry “When did algebra begin?” for the second, and the December 19 entry “The  golden age of Arabic mathematics” for the third.

Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (c.780 – c.850 CE) was one of the most significant figures in the development of modern algebra. Yet we know virtually nothing about his life.

There is even some confusion in the literature as to his full name. Most present-day sources give it as Abū ʿAbdallāh Muammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, which can be translated as “Father of ʿAbdallāh, Mohammed, son of Moses, native of the town of al-Khwārizmī”. References to Abū Jaʿfar Muammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī are erroneous in this context; that was a different person

Al-Khwārizmī wrote several books, two of which had a huge impact on the growth of mathematics, one focused on arithmetic, the other on algebra. He aimed both at a much wider audience than just his fellow scholars. As with Euclid and his Elements, it is not clear whether al-Khwārizmī himself developed some of the methods he desribed in his books, in addition to gathering together the work of others, though a later author, Abū Kāmil, suggested that his famous predecessor did develop some of the methods he presented in his books.

The first of al-Khwārizmī’s  two most significant books, written around 825, described Hindu-Arabic arithmetic. Its original title is not known, and it may not have had one. No original Arabic manuscripts exist, and the work survives only through a Latin translation, which was most likely made in the 12th century by Adelard of Bath. The original Latin translation did not have a title either, but the Italian bibliophile Baldassare Boncompagni gave it one when he published a printed edition in the 19th century: Algoritmi de numero Indorum (“al-Khwārizmī on the Hindu Art of Reckoning”). The Latinized version of al-Khwārizmī’s name in this title (Algoritmi) gave rise to our modern word “algorithm” for a set of rules specifying a calculation. In English, the work is sometimes referenced as On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals, but it is most commonly referred to simply as “al-Khwārizmī’s Arithmetic.”

Al-Khwārizmī’s second pivotal book, completed around 830, was al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa’l-muqābala. The phrase al-jabr wa’l-muqābalah translates literally as “restoration and confrontation,” or more loosely as “reducing (or solving) an equation.” The title of the book translates literally as “The Abridged Book on Calculation by Restoration and Confrontation”, but a more colloquial rendering would thus be “The Abridged Book on Algebra”. It is an early treatise on what we now call “algebra,” that name coming from the term al-jabr in the title. Scholars today usually refer to this book simply as “Al-Khwārizmī’s Algebra.” There are seven Arabic manuscripts known, not all complete. One complete Arabic copy is kept at Oxford and a Latin translation is kept in Cambridge. Two copies are in Afghanistan.

In Algebra, al-Khwārizmī described (but did not himself develop) a systematic approach to solving linear and quadratic equations, providing a comprehensive account of solving polynomial equations up to the second degree.

The Algebra was translated into Latin by Robert of Chester in 1145, by Gherardo of Cremona around 1170, and by Guglielmo de Lunis around 1250.  In 1831, Frederic Rosen published an English language translation. In his preface, Rosen wrote:

ABU ABDALLAH MOHAMMED BEN MUSA, of Khowarezm, who it appears, from his preface, wrote this Treatise at the command of the Caliph AL MAMUN, was for a long time considered as the original inventor of Algebra.        …   …   …      From the manner in which our author [al-Khwārizmī], in his preface, speaks of the task he had undertaken, we cannot infer that he claimed to be the inventor. He says that the Caliph AL MAMUN encouraged him to write a popular work on Algebra: an expression which would seem to imply that other treatises were then already extant.

In fact, algebra (as al-Khwārizmī described it in his book) was being transmitted orally and being used by people in their jobs before he or anyone else started to write it down. Several authors wrote books on algebra during the ninth century besides al-Khwārizmī, all having the virtually identical title  Kitāb al-ğabr wa-l-muqābala. Among them were Abū Hanīfa al-Dīnawarī, Abū Kāmil Shujā ibn Aslam, Abū Muḥammad al-ʿAdlī, Abū Yūsuf al-Miṣṣīṣī, ‘Abd al-Hamīd ibn Turk, Sind ibn ʿAlī, Sahl ibn Bišr, and Šarafaddīn al-Tūsī.

In addition to his two books on mathematics, al-Khwārizmī wrote a revised and completed version of Ptolemy’s Geography, consisting of a general introduction followed by a list of 2,402 coordinates of cities and other geographical features. Titled Kitāb ūrat al-Ar (“Book on the appearance of the Earth” or “The image of the Earth”), he finished it in 833. There is only one surviving Arabic copy, which is kept at the Strasbourg University Library. A Latin translation is kept at the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid.

* * *

COMING UP NEXT: Al-Khwārizmī’s answer to that perennial student question, “What is algebra good for?” Plus a look at the contents of his seminal book, including an explanation of what exactly was being “restored” in the process for which al-Khwārizmī’s Arabic term was al-jabr.

* * *

Al-Khwārizmī on National Public Radio: I talked about al-Khwārizmī and the birth of algebra with host Scott Simon in my occasional “Math Guy” slot on NPR’s Weekend Edition on December 24.

The golden age of Arabic mathematics

The third in a series. See the November 20 entry, “What is algebra?” for the first and the December 13 entry “When did algebra begin?” for the second.

On 14 September 786, Harun al-Rashid became the fifth Caliph of the Abbasid dynasty. From his court in the capital city of Baghdad, Harun ruled over the vast Islamic empire, stretching from the Mediterranean to India. He brought culture into his court and encouraged the widespread pursuit of learning.

Al-Rashid had two sons, the elder al-Amin, the younger al-Mamun. Harun died in 809 and there was an armed conflict between the brothers. Al-Mamun won the armed struggle and al-Amin was defeated and killed in 813. Following this, al-Mamun became Caliph and ruled the empire from Baghdad.

Al-Mamun continued the patronage of learning started by his father. With his encouragement, scholars of the time set about collecting and writing down in books all available practical knowledge, much of which had hitherto been transmitted only orally, including mathematics and folk astronomy. They translated into Arabic works of Greek and Indian science.

Many of the works collected and created may have been housed in a library called the House of Wisdom, though there is no evidence to support the commonly repeated claims that (1) it was massive, (2) it was founded by al-Mamun, or (3) translations were carried out there.

The tradition of learning, writing, and translation begun by al-Rashid and al-Mamun continued for the next quarter century, making the Islamic civilization the center of world knowledge. The aristocracy and other wealthy groups within Muslim society supported the appropriation of all practical and scientific knowledge they could acquire. They employed scholars to translate into Arabic works by Indian, Sasanian, and especially Greek authors, and mathematicians recorded on paper all that was known of arithmetic, algebra, and mensuration, which had hitherto been communicated orally by traders. In addition to the mathematical sciences (arithmetic, geometry, optics, mathematical astronomy, etc.), they also translated texts on geography, astrology, philosophy, medicine, agriculture, alchemy, and even falconry.

Greek works formed the bulk of the material translated. In addition, the more scientifically oriented mathematicians adopted the Greek tradition of definitions, axioms, and propositions with rigorous proof, and astronomers embraced the Greek idea of geometric models of planetary motion. Within this framework, Indian techniques were incorporated into this new Arabic/Islamic mathematics.

In addition to the translations, scholars wrote commentaries and criticisms of the ancient mathematics and made their own original contributions. For example, in the 9th century, Thābit ibn Qurra (d. 901) translated several works of Archimedes, wrote commentaries on Euclid’s Elements and Ptolemy’s Almagest, critiqued Euclid’s definition for the composition of ratios of numbers, and derived and proved new formulas for volumes of solids of revolution.

When the sources of Greek and other foreign texts was finally exhausted, scholars continued to produce new results in all branches of mathematics. For instance, in the 11th century, Ibn al-Haytham made major contributions to optics and geometry, and at the start of the 12th century, al-Khāyyamī wrote his book on algebra.

Over a thousand mathematical manuscripts from the period have survived, about half of them dating before the 15th  century.

Al-Khwārizmī, who may have studied and worked in the House of Wisdom, was one of the earliest contibutors to this vast undertaking, and arguably had the most impact of all the mathematicians involved. But his books – he wrote one on Hindu arithmetic in addition to the one on algebra – should be viewed as part of this larger movement.

At the time, algebra was viewed primarily as a practical, numerical problem solving technique, not the autonomous branch of mathematics it became later. Indeed, the greatest contribution of Arabic mathematical work to society was its development as a set of practical tools.

Three systems of practical calculation were taught and practiced in the medieval Islamic world: finger reckoning, Hindu arithmetic, and the base 60 system of the astronomers. Merchants preferred finger-reckoning, which worked for numbers up to 10,000. Finger reckoning was used to solve problems by various methods, such as double false position and algebra. Al-Khwārizmī is known to have written a work, now lost, called Book of Adding and Subtracting, in the early 9th century, which was probably devoted to the use of finger reckoning. (If so, it was probably the earliest written text on the subject.)

The Arabic mathematicians referred to the numerals 1, 2, 3, etc., as Hindī numerals, because they acquired the system from India. These numerals were already in use in the Middle East by the 7th century CE. The earliest known Arabic text describing the system is al-Khwārizmī’s Book on Hindī Reckoning, written in the early 9th  century, which survives only in Latin translation. The original algorithms for calculating in this system were devised for use on a dust board, where erasing is easy. In the middle of the 10th century, al-Uqlīdisī introduced new algorithms for use with pen and paper. The Arabic mathematicians introduced the concept of decimal fractions, wihich al-Uqlīdisī described for the first time.

Unlike Diophantus, most of the Arabic authors, including al-Khwārizmī, wrote their algebra almost entirely in words. For example, where we would write down the symbolic equation  x + 1 = 2, they might write “The thing plus one equals two” (and very occasionally “The thing plus 1 equals 2”). This is generally known as the rhetorical form, and remained in common use right up to the 16th  century. This is, however, a notational distinction, not one of content. Commentators who refer to “rhetorical algebra” as being a form of algebra distinct from “literal algebra” are in error. For, although the Arabic authors wrote their books rhetorically, with no notation even for numbers, they did not solve problems rhetorically. Throughout most of Arabic algebra, problems were worked out on some ephemeral surface, by writing the coefficients and numbers in Hindu form. For example, they would write

1  2  1

to mean x2 + 2x + 1. Later, Arabic scholars in the Maghreb developed a truly algebraic notation, with symbols for the words representing the powers of the unknown, but even they they would resort to rhetorical text to communicate the result of a calculation.

Symbolic algebra, where full symbolism is used, is generally credited in the first instance to the French mathematician François Viète (1540 –1603), followed by René Descartes (1596 – 1650), though traces can be discerned in the writings of some Arabic mathematicians as early as the 13th century.

* * *

In my next two articles in this short series, I’ll say a bit about  al-Khwārizmī and take a look at the contents of his seminal book on algebra. In particular, I’ll give his answer to that perennial student question, “What is algebra good for?”

I use terms like “Arabic mathematics” in the standard historical fashion to refer to the mathematics done where and when the primary language for scholastic texts was Arabic. Mathematics, like all of science, belongs to the world.

When did algebra begin?

The second in a series. See the November 20 entry, “What is algebra?” for the first.

Two key features of algebra as we understand the word today are:

1. Reasoning about numbers by recognizing patterns across numbers;

2. Solving a problem by introducing a term for an unknown and then, starting with what is known, reasoning to determine its value.

We first see the emergence of both features of algebra in the mathematics of ancient Babylonia, around 2,000 BCE.

Several hundred of the many thousands of Babylonian’s cuneiform-inscribed clay tablets that have been found are devoted to mathematics. They show that those ancient mathematicians had systematic procedures for solving geometric problems involving the determination of lengths and areas of figures. Today, we would solve those kinds of problems using linear and quadratic equations and indeterminate systems of linear equations. Their methods amounted to a form of geometric algebra that could be applied to solve problems beyond overtly geometric examples such as calculating the perimeters or areas of various plane figures or the volumes of solid objects: arithmetic problems arising in trade and commerce, for example, and other financial transactions such as inheritance. In addition, the Babylonians considered problems that seemed to have had no practical application, pursuing them purely for recreation. Although they described their procedures in terms of specific lengths and areas, they did so in a way that made it clear they applied in general, and in that sense they were starting to think algebraically, by recognizing patterns across quantities.

Moreover, some of their writings show the second characteristic feature of algebra, namely introducing an unknown and then reasoning to find its value. In their case, however, the unknown was not numeric but geometric – an unknown line on which they performed geometrical operations to get the answer.

In reasoning with unknown quantities, the Babylonians went further than other early civilizations with a mathematical tradition, such as the Egyptians, the Chinese, and the early Greeks, all of the first millennium BCE. Our knowledge of the mathematics of those peoples comes from works such as the Rhind papyrus, The Nine Chapters of the Mathematical Art, and Euclid’s Elements, respectively. The approach described in those documents was, like that of the Babylonians, fundamentally geometric and exhibited reasoning about patterns of quantities, but we do not find the introduction of an unknown followed by an argument to determine its value.

It is with the work of the Greek mathematician Diophantus  (ca. 210–290 CE) that we first find clearly recognizable algebra, where the unknowns represent numbers whose values are to be determined. Around 250 CE, Diophantus, who lived in Alexandria in Egypt, wrote a multi-volume work, Arithmetica, which its title notwithstanding was an algebra book. Its author used letters (literals) to denote the unknowns and to express equations, but that is a purely notational distinction. He also was one of the first mathematicians to use negative numbers in calculations. He showed how to solve equations by using two techniques called restoration and confrontation. In modern terms, these correspond more or less (but not precisely) to (1) adding a quantity to both sides of an equation to eliminate a negative term on one side, and (2) eliminating like terms from both sides. He used these techniques to solve polynomial equations involving powers up to 6.

Almost four hundred years later, the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta (598–668 CE) likewise displayed recognizable algebra, in his book Brahmasphutasiddhanta, where he described the first complete arithmetic solution (including zero and negative solutions) to quadratic equations.

Following Diophantus and Brahmagupta, the next major step in the development of algebra – and it was huge – took place in the period generally referred to as “Arabic mathematics” or “Muslim mathematics”, a significant outpouring of mathematical activity stretching from the 8th century to the end of the 16th. Indeed, the word algebra itself comes from the Arabic word al-jabr, which occurs in the title of a highly influential book by the Persian mathematician al-Khwārizmī, completed around 830: al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa’l-muqābala. The phrase al-jabr wa’l-muqābalah translates literally as “restoration and confrontation,” but more loosely means “solving an equation.”

That period will be the focus of my next article on algebra.


I’m Dr. Keith Devlin, an emeritus mathematician at Stanford University, an author, and was for many years “the Math Guy” on NPR’s Weekend Edition. Off duty, I’m an avid cyclist. (The header photo is me halfway up Mt. Baldy in Southern California.)

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