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Father of algorithms and algebra

SERISH NANISETTI

Who is Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi?

PHOTO: AFP

BANK OF WISDOM: The River Tigris

We think we are the first generation to live in this globalised world where information flows at the speed of thought. To shatter this illusion all we have to do is learn about one man who has changed the scientific world as we know it today.

That man happens to be Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi from whom we learnt our counting system, and from whose name we get our algebra and even our algorithms which are making our computers think like... well humans.

Life and work

He lived, thrived, wrote and translated in an area at exactly the same place where our civilisation is seeing one of its darkest phase: Baghdad. It was here in the city that is on the banks of the Tigris that al-Khwarizmi as a faculty member of House of Wisdom created by the Caliph worked between 800 and 847 A.D. The book al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa'l-muqabala meaning The Condensed Book of Calculation by Restoration and Comparisonwas written about 830 A.D. The preface reads:

... what is easiest and most useful in arithmetic, such as men constantly require in cases of inheritance, legacies, partition, lawsuits, and trade, and in all their dealings with one another...

Students who deal with x,y,z and a,b,c in their Algebra textbooks would scarce believe that the preface leads to such complications in life. But before he wrote this seminal work, he wrote On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals in 825 A.D. which was part translation and part explication of Indian numerals as propounded by Brahmagupta.

Brahmagupta too was a court astronomer in Ujjain like al-Khwarizmi, and he wrote Brahma Sputa Siddhanta in 628 A.D. where he used and defined zero for the first time.

He also wrote Khandakhadyaka in 665 which is more about astronomy. The Arab world learnt about the Indian system of counting when the second Abbasid Caliph invited a scholar from Ujjain called Kanka to his court and who brought Brahmagupta's seminal concept of zero.

This was translated into Arabic by Al Fazaii around 770 A.D.

Translation

Khwarizmi used the concepts from this translation for his book that has been lost but its Latin translation is Algoritmi de numero Indorum and in English it would read Al-Khwarizmi on the

Hindu Art of Reckoning. From the name of the author, rendered in Latin as algoritmi, we got our magical algorithm.

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