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Topic: [HM] The Universal History of Numbers
Replies: 8   Last Post: Jun 7, 2000 7:06 PM

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J.G.Fauvel (John Fauvel)

Posts: 25
Registered: 12/3/04
Re: [HM] The Universal History of Numbers
Posted: Jun 7, 2000 7:55 AM
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The recently-translated "Universal History of Numbers" is a greatly expanded
edition of the earlier book by Georges Ifrah that Heinz Lueneburg refers to.
This new version does have a very substantial index, in the English
translation at least (pp. 616-633, three columns per page).

I understand that in its native France, this book has attracted rather a lot
of criticism from specialists in the areas covered by the book. The
'Bulletin APMEP' for April-May 1995 and June 1995 (nos 398 and 399) carried
reviews by specialists in Maya numeration, Indian numeration, Chinese
numeration and Mesopotamian numeration, all drawing attention to problems
with the account of these subjects given by Ifrah. Jim Ritter, for
instance, concludes his review of the Mesopotamian chapters with the

"Tout ceci rend, he/las, le livre inutilisable: quand les erreurs -- de fait,
d'interpre/tation, d'appre/ciation -- sont tellement re/pandues, le lecteur non
spe/cialiste ne peut distinguer ce qui est vrai de ce qui est possible et

This kind of debate doesn't seem to have occurred in the English-speaking
world, and so if any of our French colleagues could fill us in on the points
at issue this would be rather helpful.

Certainly it is not always clear just where Ifrah has got his information
from, and how he has interpreted what evidence he has read from the work of
specialists in the different fields. On the other hand the book is an
extraordinary compendium of information, claims and insights that might be
thought useful to teachers and others whose concern is for inspirational and
fascinating resources.

It might be worthwhile to debate how the balance between inspiration and
accuracy is to be struck. Can it be argued that an exciting book that is
rather cavalier with its sources is nevertheless on balance a good thing, or
must a book of this sort be considered to set such a disreputable example
that it should be kept away from vulnerable minds? From books people learn
not only factual information (which may or may not be true) but also, by
example, an approach to acquiring and evaluating that information. Perhaps
one's judgement about Ifrah depends on how one balances being told things
with learning to find out things.

John Fauvel

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