The universal history of numbers The universal history of numbers: from prehistory to the invention of the computerGeorges Ifrah; Harvill Press 1998WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 

There are things around us that we take for granted and don’t give much thought about. Numbers and counting is definitely one of them. We all learn how to count from very early age. We manipulate numbers very easily and beyond numbers, mathematics has given the power to change the world. But if you ask abruptly to anyone: where does it come from? Very few can answer that. I could not, until my parents, in 1995, give me this book as a present. This book has had a huge impact on me and this is why I will tell you more about it. But before starting the review, I’ll have to say that the version I have read is rather old and it seems to me much bigger than the versions available these days. In its French version (see picture with white cover available in Amazon in second hand), it was made of two books of about 1000 pages each. The editions you can now find are about half the size. Has it been shorten or is it just the editing that makes a difference? I could not tell you. But obviously the check I’ve made on the recent editions seems to show that you might have less but you’d still get plenty.

First impression

What strikes the reader when you get that book is the huge amount of information, the incredible number of topics covered in this book. The more you go through the chapters titles, the more you understand you knew nothing about numbers. There is much more to numbers than the 10 digits we daily use in occident. Humans have been extremely creative as the need to be able to count was huge. You actually cannot trade, plan or build properly without numbers. So, the number of solutions to be able to do that is huge and this is what Georges Ifrah is showing in this book.The Universal History of Numbers – Book review

In details

Once you start reading Ifrah’s book, you cannot stop being amazed in front of the diversity of solutions created by human beings for counting. Some solutions are extremely clever and efficient when others are kind of clumsy. In the clumsy set you have the famous Latin system using letters such as XVII. Not only it is complex to read but it doesn’t even allow making an addition properly. Amazing! Other cultures have been able extremely early in history of humanity to calculate rather precisely the distance between earth and the sun. In order to do that, you need something efficient and capable of representing huge numbers. Just that last bit is important: being capable of representing huge numbers is not that obvious. After all, for counting cows at the market, beyond a few thousands you have little needs.

George Ifrah is not only covering the different systems, he also covers topics such as bases. Why do we use a base 10? Why do others use base 20 or even 12? If 10 will easily match our fingers, 12 is another matter. I think that Georges Ifrah’s suggestion for why using 12 is brilliant and so simple. You need to get that book just for that kind of thing (I do not want to spoil the pleasure, so I let you discover). Regarding bases, the ideal basis seen by modern mathematicians is also discussed.


You probably get it now: Ifrah has produced an absolute incredible work. I see it as a masterpiece (and I tend to be careful with the words I use). I read that book 15 years ago and I still keep it in mind and refer to it very often. It is a definite Must Have! Do not forget that the world we live in is shaped a lot by science and there is no science without the capability of counting. By reading this book you’ll go to the very root of science, to the root of human ingenuity and cleverness. This book is a journey that one wants to take to understand our very humanity better. Saying I recommend it is not good enough. It’s a Must Have. Period!


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