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The Middle Ages

After the end of the Roman Empire, many Greek works of science were lost. Many more books only survived in the Middle East, where scholars studied them and wrote commentaries and translations in Arabic. For example, Apollonius' book Conics originally had eight volumes. Today we have copies of the first four volumes in Greek. Volumes five through seven only survive in Arabic translations, and the final volume has been lost altogether.

The Middle Eastern scholars did more than just translate Greek books into Arabic. They used what they had learned to invent new kinds of mathematics. One of the most famous scholars was named Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarazmi. Al-Khwarazmi was born around 780 AD and spent most of his life in the city of Baghdad. He wrote a textbook on an Indian system of numbering. Except for the shapes of the numbers, this system was just like the way we write numbers today. Because mathematicians who wrote in Arabic made the system popular, it is known as Arabic numerals. Al-Khwarazmi also wrote a book called Al-jabr wa'l muqabalah. This book had directions for solving linear and quadratic equations. In fact, the word "algebra" comes from the title Al-jabr.

Although the word for algebra comes from his book, Al-Khwarazmi's methods were not like modern algebra. He wrote out instructions in words instead of using symbols, and included geometric methods for solving equations, just as Euclid had. Still, Al-Khwarazmi was on the way to inventing algebra.

Al-Khwarazmi's book was translated into Latin so that people in Europe could read it. In fact, for hundreds of years the best mathematicians in Europe were also translators. One of these translators was a man named Nicole Oresme.


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