An Indian history of numbers

Pervez Hoodbhoy in Nature:

Math Buddha is said to have wooed his future wife by reeling off a huge number series.

In a world divided by culture, politics, religion and race, it is a relief to know one thing that stands above them — mathematics. The diversity among today's mathematicians shows that it scarcely matters who invents concepts or proves theorems; cold logic is immune to prejudice, whim and historical accident. And yet, throughout history, different families of humans have distilled the essence of the cosmos to capture the magic of numbers in many ways.

Mathematics in India shows just how different one of these ways was, and how culture and mathematical development are intimately connected. This carefully researched chronicle of the principal contributions made by a great civilization covers the earliest days of Indian history through to the beginning of the modern period. Regrettably, it stops short of the legendary mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (born 1887), whose name is still seen in today's research papers.

Kim Plofker's book fulfils an important need in a world where mathematical historiography has been shaped by the dominance of the Greco-Christian view and the Enlightenment period. Too little has been written on the mathematical contributions of other cultures. One reason for the neglect of Indian mathematics was Eurocentrism — British colonial historians paid it little attention, assuming that Indians had been too preoccupied with spiritual matters to make significant contributions to the exact sciences. Another reason is that many ancient Indian mathematical texts have long been extinct; often, the only indication that they existed comes from scholars who refer to the work of their predecessors. As Plofker wryly notes, two historians of Indian maths recently published articles in the same edited volume, wherein the estimates of their subject's origins differed by about 2,000 years.

More here.

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