Query: unknown quantities
sohum at MS.UKY.EDU
Sun Sep 20 11:24:08 EDT 1998
I am not sure about the Greek formaliasm (without consulting more
books) but I know the Indian systems. They used words like
"yaavat" "taavat" or names of various colors - the "varNaaH". Since
the word "varNa" also denotes a symbol or letter, it is consistent to
use appropriate letters in place of whole words.
Thus "yaa" (for "yaavat") or "pii" for "piita", "nii" for "niila"
etc. were common.
One useful source is Cajori. He has a good book on history as well as
the history of notations.
The Sanskrit texts of Bhaskaracharya would be a good source for Indian
"Elliot Stern said "
||My twelve year old son brought home a math assignment on Friday that
||involves "ancient Hindu" mathematics. I have not been able to help him, as
||my knowledge of this field is limited, as are the resources available at
||The question is: What notation did ancient Greek and ancient Hindu
||mathematicians use for unknown quantities? I have taken this to refer to
||such unknown quantities as we might indicate by x, y, and z, or other
||letters in such expressions as 2x = 4.
||The Encyclopedia Britannica article "History of Mathematics" mentions
||Diophantus of Alexandria (lived some time between 2nd century BC and 3rd
||century AD) as having used a figure resembling the Roman letter S as the
||unknown quantity, but does not mention if Indian mathematicians used any
||such figures. Secondary sources at home that treat Indian mathematics in
||any way do not treat this matter. Rapid and superficial perusal of the few
||Sanskrit mathematical texts I have suggests to me that there may be no
||figurative or symbolic notation, but I would welcome any informed answer,
||so that I can help my son answer his question.
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