On Mathematics: Multiplication Tricks and the Concept of Zero

I’m finally getting back to reading Here’s Looking at Euclid, and am determined to finish up some of the non-fiction books that have been sitting in my reading pile for an embarrassingly long time.

I’m mostly posting about chapter three because I want a place to stash this quote about Indian/Vedic multiplications tricks which I found interesting:

Vertically and Crosswise, or “cross-multiplication,” is faster, uses less space and less laborious than long multiplication. Kenneth Williams told me that whenever he explains the Vedic method to school pupils they find it easy to understand. “They can’t believe they weren’t taught it before,” he said. Schools favor long multiplication because it spells out every stage of the calculation. Vertically and Crosswise keeps some of the machinery hidden. Williams things this is no bad thing, and may even help less bright pupils. “We have to steer a path and not insist that kids have to know everything all of the time. Some kids need to know how [multiplication] works. Some don’t want to know how it works. They just want to be able to do it.” ‘

This makes sense to me because I’m a huge fan of specialization. Yes, most kids probably need to know HOW their math works, but for a kid who’s struggling with it, it probably makes more sense to teach them a trick so they can do it, and focus on honing their skills where they excel, instead of spending hours and hours on something they may never excel at, and likely teaching them to hate it in the process.

The other thing that stood out to me about this chapter was the commentary on the Indian discovery of zero being related to their religious understanding of the importance of ‘nothing’ or the void. This bothers me a little as I doubt I agree with their emphasis on nothingness, but I do think the concept of zero is important and helpful in mathematics, and would like to be able to figure out the true philosophical reason behind that.

Perhaps they simply over emphasize the importance of zero as an existent entity, and the proper understanding is closer to it actually being a placeholder for nothing, but I would love to see a Christian worldview explanation of the concept of zero, as I just can’t quite figure out where to start in exploring the philosophical underpinnings.


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