The history of numbers started when primitive man was boasting how many wild animals he had just fought and killed, and looked at his fingers to see if they would help.
The Roman and Egyptian systems of numerals copied man’s first use of his fingers to count. But both systems were subject to severe limitations which held back the progress of learning.
It was the Hindus who invented the startling new system which we still use today—though we insist on mistakenly calling it Arabic—and the steps that led up to the revolutionary adoption of a symbol for nothing makes this illuminating account an Asimov special that should not be missed.
OK, I’ll admit it. This is my favorite of the “How Did We Find Out” books, and one of the few that I react to with any kind of enthusiasm. It doesn’t hurt that its the only one about mathematics, a subject for which I have a wild and irrational prejudice. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the illustrations, by Daniel Nevins, are a delight from start to finish. It’s a lot of fun, even for a jaded non-youth like myself.