After a friend showed Georges Ifrah some tricks that one can play with mathematical figures, Ifrah discovered how fascinating it was to play with numbers and arithmetical concepts. A few years later, he went on to become a mathematician and a high school teacher, writing three conventional textbooks intended for senior year secondary schools' students. In 1974, a pupil asked him : Sir, where do numbers come from ? Who invented the zero ? How did the Romans do their sums ? Unable to answer these questions, Ifrah gave up teaching and set off to find the answers. And since he could find no book that dealt with the subject, Ifrah decided he would write it. In Ifrah's mind, the topic was central for a better understanding of the history of science, religion, philosophy, psychology, and civilization. He travelled everywhere visiting museums and interviewing scholars and experts, taking an account of every significant archaeological discovery or historical development. Essentially, he became an ethnologist, anthropologist, historian, archeologist, linguist, epigraphist, paleographist, psychologist and philosopher.
The result of Ifrah's research was the first French edition of l'Histoire Universelle des Chiffres, which was first published in France by les Editions Seghers in 1981. It sold a respectable 50,000 copies and was translated into several languages, notably into the English version which was published by Viking (New York, 1985) under the title From One to Zero. Later, he wrote a completely new book, sharing the same title: Histoire Universelle des Chiffres, the first complete, universal study of numbers, published in French in 1994 by Editions Robert Laffont (“Collection Bouquins”). First published in May 1994, the second version of l'Histoire Universelle des Chiffres rapidly became number one on the French bestseller lists. Since then, the book has been selected by The American Scientist’s to appear on the list of “100 or So Books” that shaped the twentieth century of science. One of Ifrah’s main ideas is that the most remarkable trait of numbers is their defiance of national and racial boundaries; they are a universal language common to us all.
1. HOW DID MAN LEARN TO COUNT AND CALCULATE?
In our time, counting and calculating are such familiar and self-evident activities that we are apt to regard them as belonging in a way to the gene pool of the human species.
The system of written numbering that we use daily is, however, a veritable chef-d’œuvre. It is without question a great invention, on a par with controlling fire, the invention of the wheel, the plow, or the steam engine. But its discovery did not spring from the hand of a god or a founder of a civilization as in a moment of creation, or as the fruit of the imagination of an inventor of genius. The result of a veritable cascade of inventions and innovations, it appeared little by little, after thousands of years of an extraordinary profusion of trials and attempts, of dazzling breakthroughs, and of plodding, even going backward and around in circles.
And everything happened as if, in the course of the ages and across different civilizations, humanity had experimented with the diverse solutions to the problem of the representation and handling of numbers before settling on the one that apparently stood out as the most perfect and most efficient one possible.
But it would take several more centuries before this revolutionary new concept would be accepted once and for all by the western world. .
2. ZERO: THE GREATEST INVENTION IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND
How long has zero existed ? How did the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese and the other peoples of antiquity think of the Void, Nothingness, the Negligible, and the Total Absence of Anything or Anybody ? What was its relation to the Tohubohu, or the chaos, of the ancient creation myths ? Why were the fierce adherents of zero the cause of so much alarm among human beings?
Who invented the theoretical zero ? Why, in short, over the course of history, did only three different peoples invent zero ? What kind of intellectual effort was involved in arriving at such a philosophical concept? What were the reasons for its being represented sometimes by a point and other times by a ring or an oval ? At what point, and why, did it start to be considered not only as the indicator of the absence of units in a certain row of numbers but also and especially as a numeric synonym for "null value"
and as the equivalent and the opposite of limitlessness? And what is the explanation for the fact that its crucial discovery conferred upon humanity the potential for extraordinary power, comparable to the « Big Bang » of the intelligence of mankind.
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