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What did the Romans contribute to math?


Date: 10/18/96 at 9:40:2
From: Howard  and Lynnann Lovejoy
Subject: Roman Contribution to Math

Dear Dr. Math,          

I am the Head Librarian at Bahrain Bayan International School in the
Persian Gulf.  This past week, the seventh grade students have been in 
the library searching for information on the history of number systems 
-- a cross-curricular project assigned by their English/Math teachers.  
The classes are divided up into groups, each locating information on a
different ancient civilization.  We have found lots of information for 
the Maya, Chinese, and Babylonian/Egyptian groups -- but, little to 
nothing for the Greek or Roman groups.  

The students have decided that the Romans contributed very little to 
the history of math other than the numbers look pretty on clocks and 
outlines.  Would you agree with that statement? We know that the 
Romans built elaborate roads and buildings -- they had to have 
mathematical engineers -- but did they really use the Roman Numerals 
to do their calculations?  

The Golden Mean supposedly is heavily used in Greek and Roman 
architecture ... was that by their design or discovered after-the-
fact?  We have searched encyclopedias and the internet to try and find 
information on these ancient number systems.  Next week the students 
finish their research and start writing their papers.  Any information 
or tips you can send us via the e-mail will be put to good use.  
Thanks!

Lynnann Lovejoy, Bayan School Librarian


Date: 10/19/96 at 22:11:51
From: Doctor Mason
Subject: Re: Roman Contribution to Math

The Romans were indeed very good mathematicians.  However, they tended 
to study only what is now called "applied math."  They wanted to be 
able to use their knowledge to build the wonderful roads and bridges 
you mentioned. 

The Roman calculations were done on a board with grooves and holes. 
I've tried to draw the board below, and indicate the place values each 
groove and hole had. 

          --       --       --      --
         |  |     |  |     |  |    |  |
         |  | --  |  | --  |  | -- |  |
         |  ||  | |  ||  | |  ||  ||  |
         |  | --  |  | --  |  | -- |  |
         |  |     |  |     |  |    |  |
          --       --       --      --
          M   D    C    L   X   V   I

On this board, they would place pebbles, "calculi" in Latin.  This 
brings us to one of the Roman contributions to math:  the words 
"calculate", and "calculus" both come from this origin.  They would 
place one pebble in the appropriate place for each letter in their 
numeral.  Other pebbles could be added to them representing another 
addend.  The pebbles would have to be rearranged so no more than 4 
were in a groove, or no more than 1 in a hole.  They manipulated the 
pebbles to do all their calculations.  

Maybe this isn't what you were looking for, but the vocabulary of 
mathematics is often something we take for granted, and it DOES come 
from someplace.  I think these things are interesting.  

-Doctor Mason,  The Math Forum
 Check out our web site!  http://mathforum.org/dr.math/   


Date: 10/23/96 at 0:52:15
From: Howard  and Lynnann Lovejoy
Subject: Re: Roman Contribution to Math

Dear Dr. Mason,

The students got your response in time to include it in their notes 
and are now busily searching further information on applied maths.  
They were thrilled to get your response and requested that I thank you 
for helping them with their math research project. Special thanks from 
the Roman group: Fatima, Mariam, Maya, Yousif, and Talal.
    
Associated Topics:
Middle School History/Biography

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