Sines and symbols

**An Account Of The Math ‘Symbol Queen’**

**Anika Joshi**

**AIS Vas 1, Alumna**

Albert Einstein once said “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” And just like poetry has poetic devices to make sure the message is going through, mathematics has me, his grandmother, the foundation stone of his family. They call me the Symbol Queen. Now, just because I am a granny, doesn’t make me an ancient relic. In fact, it might come to you as a surprise that till the 16th century, I didn’t exist.

But then over the years I developed a dynasty of my own. However, for the sake of simplicity and *cough* word limit , I’ll only be talking about my eldest and let’s say the dearest ones: the plus sign- who only wants to see how things add up in the world, the minus sign- who wants to make a difference, the equal to sign- who (obviously) believes in equality and finally the division sign- who’s been working at home for ages now; he doesn’t really like to commute.

Let’s start with the humble ‘is equal to sign’. When the Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde was writing an Algebra book called the Whetstone of Witte, he had to write “is equal to” almost two hundred times for the first two hundred pages before he finally birthed me, two horizontal parallel lines, known as “the equal to sign.” He said, “To avoid the tedious repetition of these words: is equal to: I will set as I do often in work use, a pair of parallels, or Gemini lines of one length, thus ======, because no two things, can be more equal."

I know, I said, I didn’t exist till the 16th century, but the Egyptians still had hieroglyphics to represent addition and subtraction, and not to be biased towards my current self, these symbols weren’t convenient, or in widespread use, which is why I didn’t include them in the beginning. Not all pictorial representation used in math can be considered as a math symbol, just some. The Greeks basically showed addition and subtraction as a pair of feet running toward or away from amounts to be added or subtracted, respectively. The 14th century Dutch Vander Hoecke used the plus and minus signs in his Een sonderlinghe boeck in dye edel conste Arithmetica and Robert Recorde used the same symbols in his publication, ‘The Whetstone of Witte’.

The brothers of the plus and minus sign, the multiplication and division sign had equally intriguing beginnings. The division sign, whose actual name is obelus, was invented by the Swiss Mathematician Johann Heinrich Rahn in his work, Teutsche Algebr. The word about this symbol, rather the symbol itself got popular in London when the English Mathematician Thomas Brancker translated Rahn’s work.

The multiplication sign was formulated by Oughtred, another father of mine who was credited with using 150 symbols in his work. There are only a few modern survivors out of these 150 and the multiplication sign is one of them. However, for the multiplication sign, the journey wasn’t all smooth. The ‘x’ multiplication sign received some opposition from Leibniz, who wrote, "I do not like (the cross) as a symbol for multiplication, as it is easily confounded with x; Often I simply relate two quantities by an interposed dot and indicate multiplication by ZC.LM." However, it was ‘x’ that rose triumphant and got popular in the eighteenth century.

I hope you now understand how significant I am in the world of math because none of you want to end up like one of my fathers, Robert Recorde who wrote “is equal to” two hundred times when two horizontal parallel lines can do the same job. Oh, and I’m not sorry about the math puns in this article. After all, puns are the very first sign of great intellect.