Negative numbers -
how they spread across civilizations
In 1759 the British mathematician Francis Maseres wrote that negative numbers "darken the very whole doctrines of the equations and make dark of the things which are in their nature excessively obvious and simple". Because of their dark and mysterious nature, Maseres concluded that negative numbers did not exist, as did his contemporary, William Friend. However, other mathematicians were braver. They took a leap into the unknown and decided that negative numbers could be used during calculations, as long as they had disappeared upon reaching the solution.
The history of negative numbers is one of stops and starts. The trailblazers were the Chinese who by 100 BC were able to solve simultaneous equations involving negative numbers. The Ancient Greeks rejected negative numbers as absurd, by 600 AD, the Indians had written the rules for the multiplication of negative numbers and 400 years later, Arabic mathematicians realised the importance of negative debt. But it wasn't until the Renaissance that European mathematicians finally began to accept and use these perplexing numbers.
Why were negative numbers considered with such suspicion? Why were they such an abstract concept? And how did they finally get accepted?
Last broadcast on Thu, 9 Mar 2006, 21:30 on BBC Radio 4
Ian Stewart , Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick
Colva Roney-Dougal , Lecturer in Pure Mathematics at the University of St Andrews
Raymond Flood , Lecturer in Computing Studies and Mathematics at Kellogg College, Oxford