Reply to comment

Plus Advent Calendar Door #10: Positional genius

ten

If it wasn't for the Babylonians who lived millennia ago, paying your bill at a restaurant or checking your credit card bill would be much more painful than it already is. And so would anything else involving numbers. It was these Babylonian scholars who had the brilliant idea of making the value of a numeral dependent on its position in a string of numerals: if you see a 1 at the end of a string, you know it means 1, if it's shifted one to the left, you know it means 10, if it's shifted two to the left, it means 100 and so on. This means that using only the symbols 0 to 9 you can write down every single whole number, no matter how large, rather than having to invent a new symbol every time you go up a order of magnitude.

The Babylonian number system actually had 60 as its base, rather than base ten as we do. The numerals we use today, including the use of a symbol (zero) for nothing instead of a gap, stems from India.

Find out more on in the Fabulous positional system and out other articles about number systems.

Return to the Plus Advent Calendar

Reply

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.