The Deadman Night Rider

A forum for evening students of the SMU Dedman School of Law and other outlaws..

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Algebra and Algorithms

I learned last night that both of these words and concepts originate from the Islamic world--Algorithm is derived from the name of its inventor, Abu al-Khwarizmi, and the word algebra comes from a term he coined, al-g abr. Apparently the concept of algebra didn't reach Europe until almost four hundred years later, when Leonardo Fibonacci learned it while working in a trading post in Bejaia, a city east of Algiers in North Africa, then decided to travel throughout the Mediterranean to study under the leading Islamic mathematicians before bringing that knowledge back home to Italy in 1202. I'd be willing to bet that Bejaia was probably considered a 'god-forsaken' place compared to Pisa back then--who could have guessed that he would find something so significant there? And if Baghdad, the center of trade and scientific study in the 800s, had this knowledge for so long, why didn't they do anything with it? My guess is because they had the whole world coming to them for so long, they started to think that they were the world. No need to develop cartography or use math for navigation--why would you want to go anywhere else when everything you could ever want was in the caliphate?

It wouldn't be the only place that has happened. A few months ago, I read something I had never known in my life: the Chinese were sailing around the world in ships big enough to carry Christopher Columbus' Santa Maria in their cargo holds a hundred years before he sailed to the New World (click here to see a graphic). So why does most of the world speak English instead of Chinese? They burned their own ships to the ground and made it a crime to build a sea-faring vessel that could do more than hug the coastline. They thought they had everything, that they were the empire under heaven and that the rest of the world could do nothing but corrupt them. They're still paying for that decision even today. Just amazing.

Weird stuff, man. You've got to keep pushing those frontiers, or they'll push back on you someday.


Blogger rkellus said...

First, no place on God's green earth is forsaken, even those places that are not green.

Second, I am curious to know which side of the frontier you see yourself on?

Are you hinting to the fall of Western civilization (should we all be packing it in) or are you stating that the survivial of our civilization requires scouting trips (away teams)?

8:16 AM  
Blogger rattlerd said...

I'm definitely not trying to suggest any fall of Western Civ, but there may come a day when it gets hard to tell what that means as east, north, and south merge in. Away teams might be a better characterization--in every country I've ever been in, there's one constant: they know a hell of alot more about us than we know about them. Look at how few linguists the military and intelligence services discovered they had post 9/11--you think any other countries have a dearth of English speakers?

I've never said there's any place better than here, because that's not true. What I'm saying is that if you like that kind of thing, and you're willing to give up some creature comfort for experiences, there's alot of money to be made and opportunity to be had by mining those frontiers. And it doesn't make your country any weaker--it makes it stronger.

9:06 AM  
Blogger rkellus said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your observation.

Beginning with the emergence of the Internet (and e-Commerce) and with increased emphasis towards free trade agreements, that we increasingly are living in a world with virtual borders.

With this said, did you answer my second question or are you now thinking that the "away team" description is more the ticket for what you had in mind?

10:30 AM  

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