A highlight from Short Stuff: Origin of Math Signs


Hello, everybody. The Xfinity 10G network was made for streaming, giving you an incredible viewing experience. Now you can stream all of your favorite live sports, shows, and movies with way less buffering, freezing, and lagging. Thanks to the next generation Xfinity 10G network, you get a reliable connection. So you can sit back, relax, and enjoy your favorite entertainment. Get way more into what you're into when you stream on the Xfinity 10G network. Learn more at Xfinity .com slash 10G. Hey, and welcome to The Short Stuff. I'm Josh, and there's Chuck, and this is Short Stuff. And we are going to talk about something that has been overlooked for far too long, which is the origins of the plus, minus, multiplication, division, and equal symbols. I thought this was really cool, by the way. You put this together with help from FASCO, Caltech, Science ABC, among other places. And I had never thought about this stuff because I'm not a math person, but I love origin stories. And so I thought this is really neat, especially the fact that these symbols came about to begin with because people, before they had these, you wrote out a math problem like this long word problem. But not like, you know, a train's traveling in this direction kind of thing. It's more like I have divided 10 into two parts and multiplying one of these by the other. The result was 21. Then you know that one of the parts is thing and the other is 10 minus thing. Right. That was an excerpt from a 9th century algebra book by the mathematician Muhammad ibn Musay Al -Kharwazmi. I'm pretty sure that's his name. Today, you would take that same formula and write it out as x times 10 minus x equals 21. Yeah. So simple. That's it. And that reveals why these things were so important. It just saves you so much time. So not only did it make writing an algebra book that much more attractive, it made teaching it that much faster. You might not have necessarily learned it any faster, but you definitely could teach these things faster with these notations rather than writing it out. And I also saw, Chuck, that some of those sentences that they would write, some people would put it into verse, metered verse, like poems. That takes a lot of time and it's unnecessary. Yeah. And especially at the time when you're writing with an eagle's feather and an inkwell. Sure. You know what I mean? That really drags too. It's not like you're just dashing this stuff off with a pencil. Nope. So some folks came along and changed all that. According to the VNR Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics, hot read, the origin of the equal sign goes like this. A man named Robert Ricord, or Ricordae, was the royal court physician for King Edward VI and Queen Mary, and very influential mathematician in Wales. And he got tired of writing out equals over and over. So he thus proposed the equal sign because it is two little equal lines, and that's parallel equal lines. And I never thought about it, but it's brilliant. Yeah. He said a pair of parallels or twin lines of one length, and then he shows what he's talking about because no two things can be more equal. And there's a lot of extra vowels in those words, but he gets the point across. And he was saying like, this is such a great time saver. I'm so tired of saying is equal to. And he wrote it in a book called The Wet Stone of Wit. And of course, a wet stone is what you sharpen things with. So it sharpens your wit to read this book. I love that title. And it actually became very influential and well -read as far as 16th century math books go. And Robert Ricord is credited with coming up with the minus symbol and introducing it to his people back then. The equal sign, you mean? What did I say? Minus sign. Oh, just wait, Chuck. All right. Well, we're there. Plus and minus are what we use to indicate adding something and subtracting something, as everyone knows. The terms themselves come from Latin, where plus means more and minus means less. And the other thing is the plus symbol itself is also from the Latin word et et, meaning and, like this and that equals that, which is pretty great. So at one point there was a French philosopher named Nicole Oresme from the 14th century who used that plus sign as a shorthand for et, which is what they used to write. And at first it didn't take, right? I think like people weren't universally accepting this. Yeah, it wasn't until like the 16th or 17th century that it started to really kind of take off. I think the 16th century. And apparently there was competition at first too, that it wasn't just the plain old plus sign, that equal cross, that there were other crosses in the running too, including the Maltese cross. It's a great looking cross, but it takes a lot more time to write the Maltese cross out than it does to make a plus symbol. And the whole point of these things was to save time. So everybody said, yeah, Maltese cross, we like you, but we're going to go with the plus sign. That's right. So that's plus. We got equals, we got plus, minus now. In Europe, there was an Italian mathematician named Luca Pacioli. And Luca was using the symbol P with a little line over it for plus, an M with a little line over it for minus. And no one's exactly sure, but it seems to be that the M was just dropped, right? And then the minus sign, because we already had a plus sign, became the minus sign. Yeah. So you don't need the plus sign. Forget you P with the tilde over it. We're going to take the M instead. And it wasn't Robert Ricord who came up with that, but he was the one who introduced it to England.

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