So where exactly did algebra come from? Hint: they didn’t tell you the truth.

Speaker: Piers Bursill-Hall

Date: Thu, Mar 18, 2021

Location: University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada, Online

Subject: Mathematics

Class: Scientific


The Arab mathematician al-Khwarizmi is usually said to be the ‘father of algebra’, or otherwise that ‘the Arabs invented algebra’. There is probably nothing in the previous sentence that is true (except the ‘usually’). It turns out that the traditional story is just intellectually, mathematically, and culturally lazy. A little bit of thinking about the original texts, the mathematics, and a little bit of historical context leads to a much more problematic, culturally rich, and technically subtle story. We still don’t know the whole story – there is lots of room for further research, if you have the languages – and a lot of room for thinking about past mathematics (and by symmetry present day mathematics) as existing in a rich, complex social and intellectual matrix, and not just as a succession of correct theorems. The story might even involve the Sogdians, and you have never heard of them!​