Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement: Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwarizmi-- Mathematician, Astronomer, Geographer, and The Father of Algebra

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The next time in class that you are contemplating the value of such algebraic equations as
x^2 - 20 x + 100 = 81 x , think of Muhammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī and the power he unleashed to scientists, engineers, mathematicians -- and everyday people -- to solve a wide range of problems through algebra! Although details of Muhammad's early life are sketchy, he is believed to have been born in the year 780 in the Khorasan province of Persia (now the country of Uzbekistan). He later moved with his family to a place near Baghdad, Iraq, where he accomplished most of his work between the years 813 and 833, writing exclusively in Arabic. In Iraq, he worked at the “House of Wisdom”, a highly respected place which acquired and translated scientific and philosophic papers (particularly from Greece), as well as publishing original research.

Why He's Important: A mathematician, astronomer and geographer, Muhammad is universally known as the "Father of Algebra". His famous book which introduced algebra's concepts was published in the year 830 and titled "Hisab al-jabr w'al-muqabala" (known in English as "The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing"). This work described his systematic approach to solving linear and quadratic equations. In fact, the word "algebra" is derived from the Arabic word ("al-jabr") which appears in his book's title. Also interestingly, the words "algorithm" and "algorism" stem from Algoritmi -- the Latin form of Muhammad's name. His work led to algebra being introduced to Europe, where his book became the standard mathematical text at European universities until the 16th century.

Other Achievements: In addition, Muhammad's research in geography led to correcting and better systemizing the works of the great Greco-Egyptian mathematician and geographer Ptolemy by creating a map of the then "known world." He also published works on mechanical devices like the clock, astrolabe, and sundial, and was among the first to introduce the Hindu-Arabic Numeral System (complete with a decimal point and the all-important value of zero). His other contributions include mathematical tables that described trigonometric functions, and refinements in the geometric representation of conic sections.

Mohammad's Place in Mathematics HIstory: Mathematicians J. O'Conner and E. F. Robertson, writing in the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive, perhaps best describe Mohammad's contribution to algebra and mathematics history when they say: "It is important to understand just how significant [the introduction of algebra] was. It was a revolutionary move away from the Greek concept of mathematics which was essentially geometry. Algebra was a unifying theory which allowed rational numbers, irrational numbers, geometrical magnitudes, etc., to all be treated as ‘algebraic objects‘.. it allowed mathematics to be applied to itself in a way which had not happened before."

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