Al-Khwarizmi Does the Math

Quick:  multiply DVII by XVIII.  Before you could work the problem you translated it into Arabic numbers didn’t you?

The person you can thank, or blame, for your ability to multiply and divide is the mathematician and astronomer Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (ca. 783-847), whose name lives on in a mangled form as “algorithm.  (Honest.  Take a moment to sound it out.)

We know very little about al-Kwarizmi’s life.  His name suggests he was born in the region of Khwarazm in what is now Uzbekistan.  There are suggestions that he was a Zoroastrian, who may have converted to Islam.

We know a lot about al-Kwarizmi’s work as a scholar in al-Mansur’s court in Baghdad.  He introduced what were then called “Hindu numerals” to the Muslim world.  He produced an important astronomical chart (zij) that made it possible to calculate the positions of the sun, the moon and the major planets and to tell time based on stellar and solar observations.

Al-Kwarizmi’s most important contribution to science was a ground-breaking mathematical treatise: al-Kitab al-Mukhtasar fi Hisab al-Jebr wal-Muqabala. The title translates to The Compendium on Calculation by Restoration and Balancing, but the book is most often referred to as al-jebr, or algebra.  His treatise was a combination of mathematical theory and practical examples related to inheritances, property division, land measurements, and canal digging.  He was the inventor both of quadratic equations and the dreaded word problem.    (Some of his word problems became classics, which meant they were still giving schoolboys grief several centuries later.)

So, the next time you need to calculate how long it will take for two cars to meet in Dubuque if one car leaves Minneapolis going 60 miles an hour and the other leaves Peoria traveling 75 miles an hour?  Thank al-Khwarizmi.

This post previously appeared in Wonders & Marvels.


Building Baghdad

Today we think of Baghdad in terms of tyranny, terrorism and mistakes. A sinkhole for American troops.  A sandbox for suicide bombers.

In the eighth century, Baghdad was the largest city in the world–and the most exciting.  Like Paris in the 1890s, Baghdad was a cultural magnet that drew scientists, poets, scholars and artists from all over the civilized world.  (Just for the record, that didn’t include Europe, which was having a bit of trouble on the civilization front in the centuries after the fall of Rome.)

Baghdad was a brand new city, built to replace Damascus as the capital of an Islamic empire that was no longer the sole property of the Arab tribes. The Abbasid caliph al-Mansur had his architects draw the outer walls of his new capital in a perfect circle, using the geometric precepts of Euclid.

Completed in 765, the Round City grew quickly. Within fifty years, it had a population of more than a million people: Muslim and Christian Arabs, non-Arab Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sabians and an occasional Hindu scholar visiting from India.  It had separate districts for different trades, including a street devoted to booksellers and papermakers.

Most important of all, Baghdad had libraries. Encouraged by an official policy of intellectual curiosity, scholars in Baghdad collected works of literature, philosophy and science from all corners of the empire.  (Baghdad reportedly negotiated for a copy of Ptolemy’s Megale Syntax as part of a peace treaty with Byzantium.) Ambitious nobles followed the caliphs’ example and created their own libraries, many of which were open to scholars. Working in a culture that encouraged learning, Abbasid scholars in the eighth through the tenth centuries not only transcribed and translated the classical scholarship of Greece, Persia and India, they transformed it, pushing the boundaries of knowledge forward in mathematics, geography, astronomy and medicine.

This post previously appeared in Wonders & Marvels

(Dear Readers:  I’ve been AWOL for a few weeks because I’m working on a big exciting project that I can’t tell you about just yet.  It finally dawned on me that I have some posts and articles from other places that you might enjoy. Sometimes I’m a bit slow.  Thanks for sticking with me.–Pamela.)

Déjà Vu All Over Again: Drug Wars

A growing number of addicts.  A ruthless business cartel.  A country determined to close its borders to imported drugs.  Violence and corruption in major cities.  Sound familiar?

Welcome to the Opium War of 1839.

In the late eighteenth century, opium was a key element in the British East India Company’s business plan.  The company grew opium in India and sold it in China, using the proceeds to pay for porcelain, tea and silk for the market back home in Britain.  By the 1820s, the British were shipping enough opium to China each year to supply a million addicts, and the market was growing.

The Chinese government rightly saw imported opium as a threat to society.  Opium smoking not only destroyed individuals, it destroyed families. (You want a lecture on family values?  Read Confucious.)  The high price of opium led to violence and corruption.  The drain of silver payments for opium threatened the country’s economic base. The Chinese made the import and production of opium illegal in 1800, but their efforts to enforce the ban were unsuccessful.

Britain, in its turn, wanted China opened up to free trade.  The Chinese limited foreign trade to the port of Canton (now Guangzhou).  Within Canton, foreign merchants were subject to further limitations on where they could live and trade, when they could trade, and who they could trade with.  In 1793 , the British government sent Lord Geroge McCartney on diplomatic mission to China with the goals of establishing diplomatic relationships with the Chinese government and opening trade.  The Chinese Emperor sent a condescending note to King George III explaining his refusal:  “We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufacture.”  A second mission in 1816 under the leadership of Lord Amherst was dismissed by the Chinese due to Amherst’s refusal to follow the ceremonial forms of the Chinese court.*

In 1838, the Emperor sent an Imperial Commissioner to Canton to stop the opium trade–basically a drug tsar by another name.  Lin Zexu successfully suppressed the Chinese opium sellers, but was forced to barricade the foreigners in their warehouses before they surrendered their merchandise.

Lin Zexu confiscated and destroyed 20,000 chests of illegal opium from British warehouses.  The British responded by sending sixteen British warships to China. Between 1839 and 1842, the British navy attacked and blockaded Chinese ports, sank Chinese ships, occupied Shanghai, and sailed up the Yangzte River to threaten the city of Nanjing.  Their immediate goal was ‘”satisfaction and reparation” for the insult and loss of British property.  If they happened to force the Chinese to agree to more acceptable commercial privileges at the same time, that was gravy.

The 1842 Treaty of Nanking opened five treaty ports to Western trade, gave the British what was then the barren island of Hong Kong,  paid reparations to British merchants for lost property, and gave foreign merchants extra-territoriality (always the thin edge of the wedge when it comes to losing control of your country). **  Neither side was happy with the provisions of the treaty, making a Second Opium War almost inevitable.


*Familiarly known as “prostration” or  “kowtowing”.  Amherst took the position that it was below the dignity of an Englishman to prostrate himself before a foreign monarch.  The Chinese took the position that he could hit the floor or hit the road.

** Extraterritoriality makes foreigners subject to their own laws rather than those of the country in which they are foreign.  The basic idea is “When you’re in Rome, who cares what the Romans do?”