Throughout history there have been countless individuals who were incredibly smart and also at the right place at the right time. Many of these have probably been forgotten over time – odds are we won’t ever find out who invented roasting food on fire – but others are remembered in the names or their persons and works.
A particularly interesting period are the “dark ages” – the 900 years after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century and before the Renaissance (“rebirth”) in the 14th. The label “dark ages” is under dispute – there was probably more development, culture, and even technological advancement than we give them credit for. But comparably few written records survive of the Western civilization during that time.
Fortunately, others carried the torch of scientific advancement: Notably the Persian Empire. And here we meet one scholar who has left his mark on mathematics in a way that few others are known to have done. His name was Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, with the last part meaning “from Khwarazm”, a region that today belongs to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Al-Khwarizmi was mathematician and scientist for the empire. Now, this doesn’t immediately ring a bell in the way that “Galileo” or “Da Vinci” do. But his name certainly survived – and also that of one of his major works. As Wikipedia says, “Al-Khwarizmi's popularizing treatise on algebra (‘The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing’, c. 813–833 CE ) presented the first systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations.” That’s right, this guy can be credited with inventing (or at least writing down) a big part of what you know as “Algebra”. In fact, the name “Algebra” came from a part of the Arabic title of his book: “al-jabr,” interpreted to mean something along the lines of “restoration” or “completion”. People argue about whether he was the first to invent it, but in those times, writing something and getting people to copy it was perhaps the ultimate achievement! We don’t know how you feel about Algebra, although of course we have made it our mission to make you love it. But I have one more of his achievements which I know you will appreciate: He brought the Hindu-Arabic numeral system to the Western world. It’s a little hard to put ourselves back in the times before it, but imagine you had to tell me how many Super Bowls happened between number XXIV and XLIX? You would probably look these up, or, if you are up for a challenge and familiar with Roman numerals, translate them to decimal (the “Hindu-Arabic” part I mentioned) in your head and then do the arithmetic steps - of which, of course, Al-Khwarizmi wrote a book. What you would decidedly not do is work out the result on paper without converting. And if subtraction seems daunting, let’s also note that the Romans seem to have never developed a practical method for multiplying and dividing such numbers. I, for one, am very thankful to not be left writing things in Roman numerals! Al-Khwarizmi's books presented series of steps which with we can reliably solve a problem. Such a series of steps also goes by another name today: The word “Algorithm” comes from “Algorismi”, a Latinization of Al-Khwarizmi's name. And his number system contribution also became immortalized: The Spanish word “guarismo” and the Portuguese word “algarismo” both mean "digit" or “numeral” or “number”. Our world is different because of the man from Khwarazm. The next time you count with your fingers, follow an algorithm, or solve a quadratic problem by completing a square, think “al-jabr” in your head and give the man a smile!