India - Culture
Why are Indians natural math geniuses?
Clint Misquitta argues that it is amazing to see how mathematics fits into almost every expertise and thereby every facet of human life; and it is plain to see how students, many of them Indians, have made life a better place. From Mumbai.
Man has not found a better friend to partner him in his search for meaning than mathematics. The language of science, the code of nature; Mathematics has been the key through which our understanding and awareness of our world has increased to the extent that man has understood his purpose and place. From the beginning, evolutionary needs made us curious for knowledge that can be employed for the solution of specific problems in the real world. Each theorem and mathematical breakthrough is a little piece of a larger puzzle Mathematics matters; all of it.
Today, mathematics has contributed to progress immeasurably. However, early civilisations used mathematics for simple day to day solutions. In the early days the concept of god was still vague, man´s answer to what he did not know, an unknown entity whose marvellous creation man beheld with his eyes. So mathematics was used for simple measurements for altars, precise construction of places of worship, thus it became an important means of this eternal quest. He also used math for other simple necessities like calculation of distances between cities and as man progressed trade began to flourish, again mathematics formed the base that fuelled this trade through science. Astronomy was essential for every sea adventurer. Basic positions of stars and planets, the effect of the moon on the earth, celestial shadows and their significance, all of this revealed the secrets of the gods to men.
The journey mentioned began with curiosity, and so mathematics can be traced to early civilisations. All of which used it to progress through the pages of time. Each produced geniuses who contributed immensely to the body of knowledge that helped shape our times. The Greeks, The Egyptians, the Chinese, the Babylonians and off course, the civilisation that was nursed by the great provider - the Indus. Today the world of mathematics owes a lot to contributions made by Indian math geniuses.
The number system invented by the Indians on which much of mathematical development has rested. The ingenious method of expressing every possible number using a set of ten symbols emerged in India. The idea seems so simple nowadays that its significance and profound importance is no longer appreciated. Its simplicity lies in the way it facilitated calculation and placed arithmetic foremost amongst useful inventions.
The ingenious method of expressing every possible number using a set of ten symbols emerged in India.
First, however, let us go back to the first evidence of mathematics developing in India. For this we travel to around 3000 BC, to the earliest known urban Indian culture which developed at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. It was a civilisation that survived for centuries evolving through the years. They developed a written script and contributed immensely to the field of mathematics.
We often think of Egyptians and Babylonians as being the height of civilisation and of mathematical skills. However, we cannot forget the contribution of the Indus civilisation, as reflected in the words of V G Childe in New Light on the Most Ancient East: “India confronts Egypt and Babylonia by the 3rd millennium with a thoroughly individual and independent civilisation of her own, technically the peer of the rest. And plainly it is deeply rooted in Indian soil. The Indus civilisation represents a very perfect adjustment of human life to a specific environment. And it has endured; it is already specifically Indian and forms the basis of modern Indian culture.”
After the ancient cities were discovered in the year 1920, we realised that the people from Harappa had adopted a uniform system of weights and measures, which they used for trade and everyday business. This system incorporated the decimal system and complex combinations to arrive at the exact weight. Several scales for the measurement of length were also discovered during excavations. One was a decimal scale based on a unit of measurement of 1.32 inches, which has been called the "Indus inch". By about 500 AD the classical era of Indian mathematics began with the work of Aryabhata. His work was both a summary of the Vedic age mathematics and the beginning of new era for astronomy and mathematics in combination. He replaced old ideas of cosmic lunar demons with the theory of the eclipse. He introduced trigonometry in order to make his astronomical calculations. Likewise, there were a host of Indian mathematicians who contributed to concepts which we apply even today.
However, is it just coincidence that the Indian subcontinent produces such mathematical geniuses? The answer goes back to our roots and the level of Indus valley curiosity. What is important to note, is that while others over the world contributed to mathematics, the Indus civilisation mathematicians approached the subject in a different way. While others looked at it as a solution to a given problem, the Indians went beyond traditional problems of measurements, distances to actual application of mathematics to infinite enigma of space, and astronomy. This gave Indian Mathematicians an edge as they were able to look at the concept of infinite numbers which facilitated their understanding of concepts which were beyond existing human intellect. Thus we developed a highly mathematical gene pool. Mathematics was passed through the generations and it also evolved into high development of the left-brain and today Indians make some of the best engineers. Thousands of engineers graduate each year from some of the most renowned institutions like the Indian Institute for technology. Today, Indians travel the world taking their numeracy and cognitive genius along. The Silicon Valley and various Information technology hubs in the west are now home to Indian software masterminds.
The Silicon Valley and various Information technology hubs in the west are now home to Indian software masterminds.
What is of paramount importance is that the mathematical competence in the yesteryear was nurtured and looked after. During these centuries the educational system in India did not allow talented people with ability to receive training in mathematics or astronomy. Rather the whole educational system was family based. There were a number of families who carried the traditions of astrology, astronomy and mathematics forward by educating each new generation of the family in the skills which had been developed. We should also note that astronomy and mathematics developed on their own, separate for the development of other areas of knowledge.
Now a "mathematical family" would have a library which contained the writing of the previous generations. Again religion was the key, for astronomy was considered to be of divine origin and each family would remain faithful to the revelations of the subject as presented by their gods.
The genius was seen. But without support systems, perpetuation of the skill was impossible. For this institutionalisation were the key. This can be seen as Aryabhata headed a research centre for mathematics and astronomy at Kusumapura in the northeast of the Indian subcontinent. Aryabhata set the agenda for mathematical and astronomical research in India for many centuries to come. These institutions that had been setup lit the fire of mathematics in many young passionate minds. Brahmagupta, one such protégé, would make one of the most major contributions to the development of the numbers systems with his remarkable contributions on negative numbers and zero. The concept of zero has immense benefits as you can imagine it is very difficult to say that noting is something. This was one of the most significant contributions to Mathematics which have been used by Babylonians, Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans in different capacities. The claim is also made by many. However, the first concrete appearance of a symbol for zero appears in 876 in India on a stone tablet in Gwalior. Documents on copper plates, with the same small o in them, dated back as far as the sixth century AD, abound. It is a sobering thought that eight hundred years later European mathematics would struggle without the development of these concepts.
After understanding all these facts, it is not surprising that Indians are natural at mathematics and in many ways have laid the foundations of Mathematics. We have a history that speaks of glorious works that aided other sciences and added to the quality of life through technological advancements. It is amazing to see how mathematics fits into almost every expertise and thereby every facet of human life. So many everyday experiences in life involve mathematics that it is impossible to separate it from life itself. Today we see past efforts come into fruition and it is plain to see how the students of mathematics many of whom have been Indian, have made life a better place to live in.