Pope Sylvester II

Gerbert of Aurillac became Pope in the year 997 A.D. and died in 1001 A.D.  He was the subject of an article in Sky and Telescope* during the millenial year of our Lord, 2000.  Gerbert was interesting because he had presided over the previous major year change from 999 to 1000 and in the runup to the year 1000 some people had acted as if the world would end then. As it turns out Gerbert was simply fascinating. He was a scientist and probably one of the best of his day. He trained in Spain and brought his knowledge back over the Pyrenees. What I am concerned about today is that he is listed as having taught people the Hindu-Arabic system of numerals. The one we use today.

This:  1,2,3,4, 10, 100    Rather than this:  I , II, III,  IV, X, C

Fibonacci is also listed as the one who brought the Hindu-Arabic numerals to the West, and beyond him comes Leonardo da Vinci, roughly 500 years later than Pope Sylvester II, who is also credited with having brought Hindu-Arabic numerals to the West. Rather than argue about which one of these gentlemen really did the deed I assume this means that it took 500 years to make the change stick. In the interim the Cistercians, for example, tried to change Roman numerals into a new set of symbols that have vanished into the mist. But in that system a number like “33” had a single symbol. This made lots of math difficult if not impossible. It is also true about Roman numerals, as pointed out by my mother, that they are easy to use on an abacus. (Not that I can use an abacus but I can believe that Roman numerals fit the abacus.)

I remember being taught about place value and finding it impossible to believe that the symbol “10” had some meaning beyond “ten”. Separating it into two bits made me crazy. So when I taught my children math we started with Decimal street, courtesy of Math-U-See, so that they began with place value and it didn’t come as an appalling shock later on. It’s easy for me to believe that it took five hundred years to make a fundamental change in people’s way of thinking since I saw, in my own eleven-year old self, the resistance to a new way of seeing numbers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s