Archive for September, 2006

Remembering al-Khwarizimi and the Algorithm

Sir Syed College is in Taliparamba a tiny coastal town on the outskirts of my home town Cannanore in the Malabar area of Kerala. It is named after Sir Syed Ahmed Khan,the 19th century scholar and proponent of modern education for muslims in India and founder of Aligarh University.

The college has a Computational Chemistry Lab for which I have provided seed funding as part of my effort to introduce science-based innovation in that area. Last year I had set a goal for the Lab to publish a paper in an international journal of repute within the year. They are close to that goal and have submitted their first paper to the Asian Journal of Chemistry. Zeinul Hukuman and Abdul Jaleel are the key drivers of the Lab.

When I visited them last week I pointed out to the students that the thrust of their work, the use of computer algorithms to calculate the structure and properties of molecules, would have received a nod of approval from al-Khwarizimi, the 9th century Persian mathematician based in Baghad.

The ‘algorithm’, that centrepiece of modern computer science is the latinization of his name. His full name was Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi and the textbook he wrote was titled, “Kitab al-Gam wa-al-tafriq bi-hisab al-Hind” which is translated as “On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals”. A copy of a Latin transalation of this book, “Algoritmi de numero Indorum”, is available at Cambridge University Library Ms., and is dated as from the thirteenth century. This incomplete manuscript has only sixteen pages of which the first four and a half pages are devoted to a description of the Hindu-Arabic numerals with detailed explanations of the place value notation.

Al-Kwarizmi’s work is believed to be possibly based on the “Brahmasphutasiddhanta” by the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta.

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