Wednesday, July 20, 2011

History of Number Systems, Civilisation and Our Digital Future

What does Jef Raskin (father of the Apple Macintosh, whom I proposed should be a saint in a previous article), Daniel J. Bernstein (author of qmail and djbdns), Edgar F. Codd (inventor of relational database management systems), Donald Knuth (father of algorithm analysis) and Google's Sergey Brin have in common? Aside from being some of the luminaries in the computer industry, they are also mathematicians, earning degree in mathematics either initially, solely or alongside computer-related courses.
Mathematics is probably the most dreaded subject by almost anyone who became a student. I've had my brief episodes of sleepless nights over some of math's specific branch (don't get me started with calculus!), but as this blog I read summarily points out:

You don’t need math skills to be a good developer but you do need them to be a great one.

I may not fully grasp the essence of calculus (for now), but I have learned to appreciate math and not panic when I had to formulate sequence of computations in many projects I've been in. Business applications, like accounting systems, usually anchored to financial matters by nature require concentration and focus on mathematical operations.

My better half, taking up college, recently had a math class assignment on the history of number systems. Googling for number systems returned this article on number systems throughout human history among other things and got me thinking: If we don't have the decimal system as we have today, would we have reached the digital age now?

Below is an example of Roman numerals as seen on a clock face:
Thanks to

The Greek numbers, fraternity and sorority names are also taken here:
Thanks to

The Babylonian number system:
Thanks to University of St Andrews in UK for this hosting image

And the Mayan number system, famous for having numerical representation for zero:

Given the illustration of the number systems of previous civilisations, I think it would be doubtful for us to reach the sophistication we have now had we not been using the decimal number system. The mathematical operations we know now like calculation, permutation, differentiation, integration, and exponentiation to mention a few may prove to be difficult if not impossible given the numeric representation as illustrated above.

In retrospect, we should have more appreciation, respect and interest to learn mathematics; after all, it's the key to our digital future.

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