The square root of half the number of a swarm of bees is gone to a shrub of jasmine; and so are eight-ninth of the whole swarm: a female is buzzing to one remaining male that is humming within a lotus flower in which he is confined, having been allured to it by its fragrance at night. Say, lovely woman, the number of bees.
If only all maths questions could be that poetic! We haven't made this one up, rather it comes from the twelfth-century book Lilavati ("The beautiful"), written by the Indian mathematician Bhaskara. According to legend, Bhaskara had a beautiful daughter whose horoscope predicted she was to remain unmarried and childless. Not wanting to do without grandchildren, Bhaskara decided to defy destiny and built a water clock to determine an "auspicious moment" at which his daughter was to get married. But the girl couldn't resist a peak at the clock — a pearl from her dress fell into it and clogged up the hole, so the auspicious moment could never come. To console her, Bhaskara wrote her a maths book (lucky girl!) and named it after her: Lilavati. It's a beautiful book which would make a great present for anyone who likes maths and history.
We came across Lilavati while writing our book Numericon, and it wasn't the only historical marvel we found. Other highlights were John Napier's 1614 book The description of the wonderful canon of logarithms and Claude Shannon's revolutionary 1948 paper A mathematical theory of communication, which laid the foundations for computers as we know them. Happy reading!
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