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ADAM CLEMENTS – SME 430 – Discussion Post #1 – 1/19/2010

Read Sketch 1 (Keeping Count - Writing Whole Numbers - p. 61-66) and Sketch 2 (Reading and
Writing Arithmetic - Where the Symbols Came From - p. 67-70) before responding to the
following prompts. Submit your responses as a post to this discussion forum.

1. Think about the number system we are using right now. Write down three to five
properties of our number system. For example, we are using 10 symbols to make up all
the numbers (0, 1, 2, 3,...9). Consider the in-class activity and the readings for this week.

• Our number system is a base 10 system.

• It uses place value, thus is a positional number system meaning that the position of
the symbols determines the value.
• The numbers (0, 1, 2, 3 … 9) are called digits.
• Each number represents a point on the number line.
• Any number can also be expressed in words.

Compare our number system with two other number systems used in the history of
mathematics. In your opinion, what advantages and disadvantages do you see with the
different number systems that have been presented.

Our Current Number System Ancient Egypt Babylonian

Advantages: Advantages: Advantages:
• Good for computation • Few symbols to remember • Only two symbols used.
• The symbol represents the • Order of symbols doesn’t Easy to make.
number. There is no matter – easy to write Disadvantages:
counting of lines or dots • Uses a base multiplication
involved. Disadvantages: of 60. This can get
• Can write a large number in • Involves counting the confusing and involves
a small amount of space. number of symbols for computation just to figure
each place value. out what number is being
Disadvantages: • Order of symbols doesn’t represented.
• It’s very easy to change the matter – can get confusing • Involves using spaces to
number just by adding a 0 to count denote two groups. Hard
or another number to the • Limited symbols to denote to tell if it is a space or
end. much larger numbers not. This gets confusing.
“million, trillion, etc) • Involves counting the
• Drawings could be symbols to determine how
described as a bit complex many they represent

In your opinion what are important characteristics for a number system to have?

• Consistency in symbols
• Minimal symbols to represent the numbers
• The number can be easily identified without counting or computing computations
2. Consider the following definition of positional number systems... "positional notation or
place-value notation is a numeral system in which each position is related to the next by a
constant multiplier, a common ratio, called the base (or radix) of that numeral system".
According to this definition, which of the number systems we have looked at are positional
and which ones are not? Explain your choices.

Positional number systems

• Babylonian
o For each single combination value was multiplied by an appropriate power of 60.
This is a base 60 number system. The order and position of the symbols
determined its value.
• Maya
o The system is essentially based on twenty, excepts for the peculiar use of 18. The
lowest group represents a single unit, the second group was multiplied by 20, the
third by 18*20, the fourth by 18*202, the fifth by 18*203 and so on. Also, the
position of the symbol determines the value.
• Hindu-Arabic (our current system)
o Each position increases by a ratio of 10. This is a base ten number system. Also,
the position of the digit determines the value.

Not positional number systems

• Ancient Egyptian
o Each symbol increases by a ratio of 10. This is a base ten number system,
however, the order of the symbols can be mixed up and thus the position of the
symbols does not affect its value.
• Roman Numerals and Greek
o These systems do not hold place value. The position of each symbol does not
denote its value.

3. According to the reading, the use of symbols in representing arithmetic operations is a

fairly recent adoption. Why do you think the use of symbols has caught on?

• Symbols can be universal. The fact that math is universal is a very important and
useful aspect of it. Thus, having the same symbols for math across the world is very
useful for sharing information.

What reason do you think prevented symbolic operations from being adopted sooner?

• I think that since in the past communication between different cultures was very
limited because of limited means of travel, different groups of people were coming up
with different ways of expressing the same things. Thus when they were able to
communicate, each group was hesitant to change or adapt to something different.
However when they realized that symbols would cause less confusion among
different groups that words, the change to symbols began to occur.
Do you think that you can use the standard algorithm for addition or multiplication we
are using today in other number systems. Why or why not? If yes, how?

• I think it is possible, but it would be very challenging. First, computing the different
numbers would be the first task. Actually figuring out what number the symbols
represent. Then doing the computation simply based on those numbers. Addition
would be easy for a system like Egyptian because you simply add up the different
pictures together. However, if you had to “carry” or “exchange” a group of more
than 10, this would get confusing. Systems like the Roman numerals would however
be very difficult to do computations. Without “translating” most of the other systems,
it would be extremely difficult to do computations. Often you are having to do
computations simply to figure out what the number is, then adding or multiplying two
of these numbers together would get very difficult and confusing.