Hacker News

olooney said 6 months ago:

Romans aren't the outlier here. Most ancient civilizations had a similar level of accomplishment; a one or two outstanding mathematicians every century, a few practical applications, some new rules of thumb. We did have a dark age, after the Romans after all, which likewise produced little (not none) new math.

The question should rather be, what made the Greeks (and, later, others who adopted their deductive, axiomatic method) so exceptionally productive at mathematics?

Or to paraphrase Wigner, why is Hellenistic mathematics so unreasonably effective?

crooked-v said 6 months ago:

> We did have a dark age, after the Romans after all, which likewise produced little (not none) new math.

Use of the term "dark age" is both dramatically inaccurate in many ways [1] and totally elides everything that happened outside of Europe, such as the establishment of algebra as an independent field of mathematical study (AD 800 in Baghdad), the creation of algebraic geometry (AD 1070 in Persia), and the discovery of ways to solve high-order polynomial equations (approximately AD 1200 in India and China).

[1]: https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/01/medieval-history-wh...

Edit: Fixed a location.

steve19 said 6 months ago:

Yes but the Dark Age specifically refers to Western Europe, in much the same way the disastrous impact of the Mongol Empire on Islamic scholarship, for example the burning of libraries during or after the Siege of Baghdad, barely touched Western Europe. Chances are the Mongols destroyed some advanced mathematics that took centuries to rediscover.

kennywinker said 6 months ago:

The dark ages simply refers to the loss of texts. There are few surviving texts from that period, so it is “dark”. Later the term was re-branded to mean “bad time when no new science was done” but that’s a viewpoint that doesn’t fit the facts.

Source (a very enjoyable read at that!): https://going-medieval.com/2017/05/26/theres-no-such-thing-a...

Chathamization said 6 months ago:

I mean, there definitely seems to have been a large decline in population, economic output, political cohesion, urbanization, record keeping, trade, etc., in much of the former Roman world following the fifth/sixth century. I suppose it's a value judgement on whether one considers that a "bad time."

roboys said 6 months ago:

The dark ages also saw a huge disparity in education between the East and the West.

Until the 15th century less than 5 people in Europe could do long division. For comparison, Aryabhatta discovered calculus in 5th century India and Madhava made large contributions in the 13th century (Newton/Leibniz were wrongly credited for similar work many years later).

leereeves said 6 months ago:

The way I heard it, Aryabhatta and those who followed discovered some of the ideas behind calculus and a few useful results, but not calculus itself, neither the basic ideas like derivatives and integrals nor the vast conclusions that followed from those.

Retric said 6 months ago:

> Until the 15th century less than 5 people in Europe could do long division.

That’s wildly inaccurate. Arithmetic was very much a subject at several schools with the addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division all being taught. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quadrivium

Long division being difficult in Roman numerals is one of the reasons for the switch.

roboys said 6 months ago:

>That’s wildly inaccurate. Arithmetic was very much a subject at several schools...

I'm talking specifically about "long division" in Europe... and have heard this factoid from multiple mathematicians including Nasim Taleb. So I expect there is a basis for the claim...

tripzilch said 6 months ago:

Well, especially Taleb's claims are worth it to source check. Especially if they are these really juicy stories (like only 5 people in Europe knowing long division).

He has bit of a habit exaggerating and elaborating on stories for the sake of making tasty reading. There was a story in Black Swan about two hospitals and a simple statistical riddle that he claimed professional statisticians would get wrong. It wasn't even a trick question, most people would get it right. I found this hard to believe but I was still sort of surprised when the source spoke of a much harder statistics question that was surveyed at a psychologists convention, not statisticians. That was the first (and the last) source I checked on him. I'd have checked a few more but I don't have the book any more.

But now I guess I can add this one to the list of examples.

Retric said 6 months ago:

Let’s be clear, if you mean the modern notation, that was was ‘invented’ after the dark ages. So under that definition it’s ~0 people world wide in the dark ages. Excluding independent discovery.

However, if we are talking about the number of people being able to accurately do 1234 / 56 = 22 r 2. That was regularly taught in the Middle Ages with plenty of examples of such calculations being available.

breck said 6 months ago:

Curious if you have any sources? I've never seen a data driven case that such a thing as the "dark ages" ever happened.

Keysh said 6 months ago:

There's an excellent book on the subject called The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization, by Bryan Ward-Perkins. It includes a detailed overview of the archeological evidence, which shows a very clear and dramatic decline in the economy and living standards -- and some areas of technology -- between circa 350 and 600 in the Western Empire. (And the recovery afterwards took centuries.) The Eastern Empire, interestingly, doesn't show any signs of a similar decline until the 7th Century.

For example, peasant households in Italy at the height of the empire had a wide variety of well-made pottery, some of it originating from production centers hundreds of miles away, along with tiled roofs; after the collapse, the variety and quality of pottery was greatly reduced, and tiled roofs disappear. (Tiled roofs provide better protection against rain, are less flammable, and require less maintenance and rebuilding than wooden shingles or thatch; but they also require large kilns, lots of clay and fuel, and a good transportation network.)

And ice cores from Greenland show extensive metalworking going on in Western Europe (in the form of copper and lead pollution carried through the air) during the Roman Empire; after the collapse of the Western Empire, the pollution levels don't return to Roman-era values until the 16th Century.

ghaff said 6 months ago:

Another source, in addition to the one cited by Keysh, is Social Development by Ian Morris which goes into some more depth on the data he used in Why the West Rules--for Now.


Across a wide set of measures, there was a significant decline of the West after the fall of the Roman Empire.

atroche said 6 months ago:
FranzFerdiNaN said 6 months ago:

Well, someone has a bone to pick with the early Middle Ages. What an angry rant to prove that the dark ages really existed. He sometimes has a point but in total it really is a non-historian making some weird arguments to prove that 800AD was terrible (look at the difference in these maps! Just completely ignore any cultural and artistic context that matter why they look the way they do!). I’m surprised he didn’t compare Greek statues with medieval paintings to prove his point.

goto11 said 6 months ago:

It is actually the other way around. The original meaning by Petrarch was not about the lack of historical source material. He did mean "bad/ignorant times".

wolfgke said 6 months ago:

> The dark ages simply refers to the loss of texts. There are few surviving texts from that period, so it is “dark”. Later the term was re-branded to mean “bad time when no new science was done” but that’s a viewpoint that doesn’t fit the facts.

Relevant (even though considered as pseudoscience):

> https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=New_Chronology_(F...

cptskippy said 6 months ago:

His point is that most Western history lessons completely ignore everything but Western Europe during that time frame and present a view of history that nothing was happening globally of any importance.

That really was my experience growing up in Western education. My understanding was that history focused on the important things and it wasn't until much later in life that I learned there was a lot happening globally after the fall of the Roman empire before the European renaissance.

After the USA was established, US history lessons completely ignore the rest of the globe until the early 20th century. I only learned yesterday that Italy wasn't a country until 1861 and I am almost 40.

aisofteng said 6 months ago:

>most Western history lessons completely ignore everything but Western Europe

That’s because they’re Western history lessons. I had world history as a separate class in high school.

cptskippy said 6 months ago:

I had History, American History and World History but never Western History.

novacole said 6 months ago:

Yes, but Rome isn’t Western Europe. So western Europe’s entire history is a “dark age” before the Age of Enlightenment.

(Edit: incorrectly said renaissance instead of Age of Enlightenment... the renaissance wasn’t Western European either)

fsloth said 6 months ago:

I don't know what you mean, but:

1. Roman empire dominion included, but did not limit to what we now refer to as Western Europe...

2... of whose languages are either mostly descended from, or heavily influenced by Latin...

3. ... And where the dominant religion is still the Roman state religion. Which was lorded over by the Roman state church for a thousand years before an angry German monk suggested that this was really weird and could we keep the book and get rid of the pope.

So, when you say Western Europe is not Rome, you need to say how it isn't, since there are quite a few things that link this geographic area culturally very strongly to that ancient empire.

jonnybgood said 6 months ago:

> when you say Western Europe is not Rome

To be fair, they said Rome is not Western Europe, which is true. Rome didn’t have cultural affinity with Western Europeans. Rome’s cultural affinity flowed to the east with the Greeks et al.

gingabriska said 6 months ago:

Romans culturally ate less meat and frowned upon their Northern Germanic Tribes who almost always ate meat. They were more frugal in their way of life.

The Germanic Tribes were also taller and were acknowledged by Romans as formidable warrior.

Culturally tho, Romans were South Europeans and assimilated what we call South Italy and Greece now.

They also captured parts of middle east but culturally they never became Romans.

>3. ... And where the dominant religion is still the Roman state religion. Which was lorded over by the Roman state church for a thousand years before an angry German monk suggested that this was really weird and could we keep the book and get rid of the pope.

There were other Pagan religions at the time and in middle east Jews didn't accept Roman state religion.

But then again, people born in Roman Empire got Roman citizenship on Birth so it didn't matter what you were culturally or religiously or tribe/ethnicity.

DiogenesKynikos said 6 months ago:

> But then again, people born in Roman Empire got Roman citizenship on Birth

That depends on when you're talking about. Until Caracalla made all free subjects citizens in 212 AD (supposedly so that he could tax them more heavily),[1] Roman citizenship was restricted and highly coveted.

> There were other Pagan religions at the time and in middle east Jews didn't accept Roman state religion.

From the late 300s onwards, pagans were persecuted in the Roman Empire. Nicene Christianity was the state religion. Also, Jews lived throughout the empire, not just in the Middle East. From about the 1st century AD onwards, there were more Jews living outside of the land of Israel than within it.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitutio_Antoniniana

tempguy9999 said 6 months ago:

> people born in Roman Empire got Roman citizenship on Birth

I assume 'people' excluded slaves?

gingabriska said 6 months ago:

Yes that's right.

*I mean the Germanic tribes in North ate meat everyday.

Why the Downvotes? Anyone wants to challenge these facts, please post rebuttal. I'd love to educate myself more.

tempguy9999 said 6 months ago:

Heh, I know the feeling!

But then again, you say stuff about how romans vs germanic meat eating, but I don't see any citations for that. They'd be helpful.

mixmastamyk said 6 months ago:

Generally folks living closer to the poles eat more meat.

boomboomsubban said 6 months ago:

For the period being described, the Roman Empire did not include Western Europe, they did not speak Latin nor did they view the Papacy as the head of their religion. Yet they were still the Roman Empire. That's why Western Europe is not Rome.

sk5t said 6 months ago:

What's this about "Rome isn’t Western Europe"--have you consulted a map of the Roman empire?

boomboomsubban said 6 months ago:

Have you looked at the population spread of the Roman Empire? Rome had people, the rest of the empire was predominantly to the East/South. Rome was Mediterranean, not Western European.

kgwgk said 6 months ago:

What is your definition of “Western European” precisely?


https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demography_of_the_Roman_Empi... also shows larger populations in the “Latin West” than in the “Greek East”.

boomboomsubban said 6 months ago:

The first map shows roughly thirteen million people in non-Italy "Western Europe" and roughly twenty two millions in the non Western Europe parts. Wikipedia has an actual population density map[1] that highlights my point. Even in traditional "Western Europe," the population is predominantly Mediterranean. It also has a list of the most populous cities during the peak of the Empire, largely outside of Western Europe.


edit terrible math on my part.

kgwgk said 6 months ago:

So about half the roman empire (including Italy) was in Western Europe? Of course the Roman Empire extended further (and longer in other regions), but saying Middle Age's Western Europe doesn't include large regions that were previously part of the Roman Empire seems strange to me.

boomboomsubban said 6 months ago:

>but saying Middle Age's Western Europe doesn't include large regions that were previously part of the Roman Empire seems strange to me.

No one said that. The Roman Empire isn't Western Europe, and calling the period the "Dark Ages" is inaccurate.

kgwgk said 6 months ago:

Novacole said “Rome isn’t Western Europe. So western Europe’s entire history is a “dark age” before the Age of Enlightenment.”

That seems to imply that Rome isn’t part of the history of Western Europe at all (and neither did the Renaissance happen in Western Europe, apparently).

boomboomsubban said 6 months ago:

Though I can't make out Novacole's exact point, I would assume it was more about how it is incorrect to say "there was a dark age after Rome" as the dark age only impacted a part of the still existing Roman Empire.

kgwgk said 6 months ago:

I agree. The part affected was “Western Europe”, as opposed to the part of Europe that remained in the sphere of the Eastern Roman Empire.

kgwgk said 6 months ago:

> renaissance wasn’t Western European

Was it Byzantine?

caiocaiocaio said 6 months ago:

That's like saying the Tang or Song eras didn't exist because they don't apply to Western Europe.

notinpersia said 6 months ago:

Wrong on Algebra’s origin. Often people will say Persia but it was in Ancient Greece and Baghdad. And the latter is not Persia and was certainly not under Persian occupation during the time of Alkhawarizmi (who is also credited for the invention of the algorithm or at least it was named after him.) The original title of his book that coined the term Algebra is Al Jabr wal Muqabala (casting and equation)

Just Google it:

where was algebra invented?


shademaan said 6 months ago:

I mean the first result of that search for me says it was created in Baghdad, but by a Persian mathematician

notinpersia said 6 months ago:

A Muslim Persian, and Baghdad was the melting pot of the world at that time. It’s like saying a German physicist in Princeton, NJ, which is to say that America not Germany was the place where the work was valued and promoted. Likewise, Alkhawarizmi was educated in Baghdad (not in Persia) and wrote his book on Algebra in Arabic. He was not educated in Persia and he did not write his book in Farsi.

If we put ethnicity ahead of national origin America can’t claim anything to its name. Period.

Keysh said 6 months ago:

No, Baghdad was located in the heart of the former Persian (Sassanian) Empire, a mere 35 km from the site of the Sassanian capital (Ctesiphon). Although the whole area gradually became Arabized, at the time it was still significantly Persian.

(Frankly, I doubt we know where Al-Khwarizmi was educated. We know he was originally from what's now Uzbekistan, and that he ended up in Baghdad, but not much more than that.)

notinpersia said 6 months ago:

He wrote his treatise on Algebra in Arabic because he was educated in Arabic and the language of science was Arabic in that area and at that time. AlNassirya in Baghdad was the most advanced educational institution in the world at the time. I don’t know if he was a student or teacher there but it also has an Arabic name and was built by an Islamic caliph. The same with mathematicians from India traveling all the way to Baghdad to tell the caliph about their invention of zero. Persians has many amazing contributions to science and math but Persia itself has none. Like the Romans, they were war mongers and Their culture was toxic to science.

csomar said 6 months ago:

> No, Baghdad was located in the heart of the former Persian (Sassanian) Empire, a mere 35 km from the site of the Sassanian capital (Ctesiphon).

Mesopotamia was conquered by Arabs in 633. Al-Khwarizmi was born in 780. Most the Arabic lands were gained by conquest. Even modern day Yemen and Oman were not under Arabic influence if you go back far enough. The "original" arabs spread from Hijaz and Najd.

edit: from wikipedia

> The Abbasid Caliphate first centred its government in Kufa, modern-day Iraq, but in 762 the caliph Al-Mansur founded the city of Baghdad, near the ancient Sasanian capital city of Ctesiphon.

My guess is that families from the Sassanid have immigrated to the new city and as a result Al-Khwarizmi was born there.

BalinKing said 6 months ago:

> If we put ethnicity ahead of national origin America can’t claim anything to its name. Period.

It's silly to put ethnicity ahead of national origin, though, since one of America's biggest qualities it that it is a melting pot. This feels like saying "If we put learning curve ahead of type safety Haskell can't claim anything to its name. Period." It's true, but kinda vacuous.

asveikau said 6 months ago:

But that particular super-famous German who lived in Princeton, NJ is also recognized as a German physicist. To say he was already quite accomplished when he left Europe would be an understatement.

Personally, I think if an immigrant of descendant of immigrants invents something prominent, it is fair for both countries to be proud of the accomplishment, and share that enthusiasm. It doesn't, or shouldn't hurt anyone. If anything, you are affirming accomplishment, not putting other people down.

usrusr said 6 months ago:

> it is fair for both countries to be proud of the accomplishment

Depending on the reasons for emigration, it might be fair to replace most of that pride with "dann, could have been 'ours'".

asveikau said 6 months ago:

Right, well, Germany for thankfully temporary reasons wasn't exactly kind to that particular guy when he needed to flee to Princeton.

But other than not repeating those horrible conditions, the next step is to simply be proud of the accomplishment. In this case of algebra, Baghdad isn't the Baghdad of back then, nor Persia the Persia of then, all the people of the era are no longer with us, so what does it matter really? But hey, algebra is pretty cool. And Arabs/Persians happen to feel good about it. Good for them.

said 6 months ago:
empath75 said 6 months ago:

Why can’t you just include both. We talk about Italian Americans and African Americans or whatever all the time when we talk about accomplishment. He was a Persian who lived in an Arab empire.

said 6 months ago:
said 6 months ago:
ominous said 6 months ago:

In what way does the characterization of an European period dismiss historical periods elsewhere?

theworld572 said 6 months ago:

It doesn't, some people just like to get offended by things.

mort96 said 6 months ago:

I find that assuming people who find something to be objectionable just do it because the "like to get offended by things" is a bit unproductive. At least hear them out and decide whether the explanation makes sense or not.

ralfd said 6 months ago:

Slatestarcodex has a good roundup of different arguments and metrics (world lead production):


> Although I sympathize with the feelings behind both positions, I say the Dark Ages happened. I think the best evidence we have suggests the fall of Rome (and the period just before) was associated with several centuries of economic and demographic decline, only reaching back to their classical level around 1000 AD. I think it was also associated with a broader intellectual and infrastructure decline, which in some specific ways and some specific fields didn’t reach back up to its Roman level until the Renaissance. I think that common sense – the sense you get when you treat the question of the Dark Age the same as any other question, and try to avoid isolated demands for rigor – says that qualifies for the phrase “Dark Age”.

said 6 months ago:
KON_Air said 6 months ago:

I "belivie" it is effect of cumulative knowledge from all their trade partners, who when put together is pretty much everyone on the planet at the time, since they were physically at the center of trade routes.

metastew said 6 months ago:

Pythagoras could be the reason why. He founded a school(?) and many famous philosophers and mathematicians of that time period were offshoots from that school, but that's based on a hazy recollection of my teenage interests in ancient Greek history.

novaRom said 6 months ago:

> We did have a dark age ... which likewise produced little (not none) new math.

Wrong! If you mean times between 500 and 1200: how about arabs, iranians, indians, chinese? Algebra, Negative numbers, 0123456789 system of writing?

gingabriska said 6 months ago:

>Romans after all, which likewise produced little (not none) new math.

They had Archimedes of Syracuse

emiliobumachar said 6 months ago:

Archimedes was Greek, the Romans killed him.


gingabriska said 6 months ago:

He was killed in an error tho but lived in Roman Empire.

Many Greeks were part of Roman empire, what difference does it make?

nwallin said 6 months ago:

The Roman empire was, as you say, an empire. Archimedes spoke, read, wrote, and taught in Greek. He wore a beard, which was unfashionable in Rome. His neighbors, friends, and family all considered themselves Greek. There was a myriad of other cultures within Rome's borders with completely different societies.

If a Puerto Rican living in Puerto Rico invented something, we'd call it a Puerto Rican invention. If a European immigrated to the US, integrated themselves into the culture by learning English, adopting American cultural norms, and taking the oath of citizenship, we'd call that an American invention, despite the fact that both of them carry a passport that says "United States of America" on it.

gingabriska said 6 months ago:

I'd love to know why I got downvoted.

sumitviii said 6 months ago:

Or maybe its far too soon for us to say if the West (or the Greeks who you guys almost worship as a culture) has produced more than 1 or 2 great mathematicians?

Maybe the peoples of the future will only consider one particular mathematician as the relevant one? Maybe like Turing, because most likely computers will become a greater part of the world at large? Maybe we see programmers the way people used to see scribes some time back?

Godel_unicode said 6 months ago:

Hard to believe that, if you were to do the absurd reductionist exercise of crediting math to one person, it would be anyone but Gauss.

riazrizvi said 6 months ago:

> "There was once a workman who made a glass cup that was unbreakable. So he was given an audience of the Emperor with his invention; he made Caesar give it back to him and then threw it on the floor. Caesar was as frightened as could be. But the man picked up his cup from the ground: it was dented like a bronze bowl; then he took a little hammer out of his pocket and made the cup quite sound again without any trouble. After doing this he thought he had himself seated on the throne of Jupiter, especially when Caesar said to him: 'Does anyone else know how to blow glass like this?' Just see what happened. He said not, and then Caesar had him beheaded. Why? Because if his invention were generally known we should treat gold like dirt. " (Satyricon 51)

This apocryphal story on economic incentives vs progressive incentives is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago.

ZhuanXia said 6 months ago:

The rise of technology was not so much the birth of new capacities, but the removal of old constraints.

China, despite a much larger and more educated population, did not spark the industrial revolution. Their feedback loops were too stable, their elites too competent.

From the perspective of the old power hierarchy, the industrial revolution was a disaster.

The nobility floated on that great cruel ocean first charted by Malthus, an ocean which began to boil.

toasterlovin said 6 months ago:

How much of the Chinese/Japanese vs Western Europe dichotomy in term of technological development do you think is due to geography (Europe has been fractured, politically, for all of history, mostly due to geography, I think, whereas China and Japan have both been comparatively unified and stable for thousands of years). My thinking is that this has a lot to do with how European elites were not able to prevent accumulation of new technology and ideas, whereas Chinese and Japanese elites were (and did).

And then I guess a follow up question would be: do you have an opinion on why the scientific revolution happened in Western Europe and not in the Mediterranean, which is similarly fractured, but also better situated for exchange of technology and ideas (being connected to Asia and Western Europe).

fiblye said 6 months ago:

How did geography have an effect here? I don't see what you mean.

And China hasn't really had too much stability. It's always been full of revolutions, competing empires, dynastic changes, warring states, shifts in power, changes in ethnic ruling class, and so on. Go through a list of deadliest wars and revolutions and a good chunk of them are in what is today China.

dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

China has been a largely continuous political entity for about 8,000 years.

It's been invaded at least in part a few times (Mongols, 13th c., English, 18th c., and Japanese, 20th c., most especially), but retained its overall identity and either assimilated (Mongols) or repelled (English, Japanese) the invaders, eventually.

Contrast Europe which has seen vast shifts in control, and utter replacements or eradication of local culture or tribes multiple times, going to prehistoric times, to the present (past century certainly, past few decades quite arguably). There have been very few constant borders or identities, certainly not on the scale of China.

Even written language in China is still largely intelligible to moderns, from a thousand years ago or more. English, more than about 400 years ago is almost wholly foreign:

Hwæt,ic swefna cyst secgan wylle, hwæt me gemætte to midre nihte siþþan reordberend reste wunedon.

("Behold, I wish to tell the best of dreams which I dreamt at the middle of the night, after speakers remained in rest." https://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/stella/readings/OE/ROOD.HTM)

chrisco255 said 6 months ago:


Watch that graphic to see the evolution of the extent of "China" since the Zhou Dynasty in 1000 BC. It occupies a fraction of the current extent of China. So there were lots of wars, and lots of revolutions before modern Chinese borders were established.

I get that Chinese have had more cultural and language cohesion, but that's at least partially because certain dynasties and regions won over these other regions in large swaths and history is written by the winners.

dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

And a nearly comparable (and orchestrated!) time-lapse evolutionary map of Europe, though extending back to only 400 BCE:


Note that China was under a largely single and unified set of linguistic, cultural, and political organisation throughout the entire 3,000 year period you depict. The "modern" map of Europe has changed dramatically just in the past 30 years, let alone the past 100 - 200. Entire linguistic and cultural tribes have completely vanished, save for a few pitiful relic remains. Political continuity has been nil (Greece, Macedonia, Byzantine Empire, Rome, Moorish Spain, the Gauls, Britons, Celts, and Germanic tribes, the Rus? (Swedish invaders, BTW), Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian Empires? Soviet Bloc? Independent Baltic and Balkan states? Ireland, under English subjugation since 1601, the north to this day. Poland as the pinball kid of Prussia, Russia, and Germany.

That's Europe.

Addenda: The extreme extents of the Chinese empire varied greatly. The bulk of the population, then as now, was in the eastern coastal region, largely the Yellow and Yangze river floodplains.

chrisco255 said 6 months ago:

Oh, sure, I'm not arguing that Europe was less tumultuous than China. There were many, many schisms, and wars however. Had some of these civil wars or invasions from Mongolia, Japan, etc within China had gone a different way, they could have ended up as fractured as ancient Rome.

Here's a few hundred wars that occurred during the past couple millennia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Chinese_wars_and_battl...

dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

Quantitative assessment's a poor qualitative metric at best, and I've not done a tally, but conflict's not been unknown in Europe either: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_conflicts_in_Europe

chrisco255 said 6 months ago:

I'm not disputing that. I'm arguing that China's history hasn't been some "straight line" since 4000 B.C. It's been a very rocky road.

dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

And I'm saying it's been a continuous curve, straight or not.

The language, culture, identity, philosophical and religious beliefs, government, urban centres, technologies, currency, writing systems, etc., have persisted in a largely unbroken continuum or chain. There are points at which one or the other makes some jump from one form to another, but there's never been a wholesale wipe of one system to another. Over a period of 4,000 years of recorded history and arguably going back even further.

The West has nothing comparable to offer. Not in Egypt, not in Mesopotamia, not in Rome, not in England, not in France, not in Germany, not in Scandinavia. Maybe in Persia or India. Vietnam may have an older continuous civilisation. Japan does not, though it comes close.

The opening sentence of an arbitrarily selected webpage on ancient China makes this case: "Ancient China produced what has become the oldest extant culture in the world."


To be clear: I'm not some defender of the present regime in China. I'm only casually aware of its general history, geography, and culture. But as I study it the vastness of the culture, in both time and space, has impressed the hell out of me. And it seems that this isn't as widly known or appreciated as it could be.

fiblye said 6 months ago:

>Contrast Europe which has seen vast shifts in control, and utter replacements or eradication of local culture or tribes multiple times, going to prehistoric times, to the present (past century certainly, past few decades quite arguably). There have been very few constant borders or identities, certainly not on the scale of China.

Except you wouldn't contrast that. Those same events have happened in the region of China on the same scale as continental Europe as a whole. Entire societies have risen, conquered lands, and vanished.

The Manchu are the most notable example for coming in from the Northeast and conquering China. They had their own unique culture and language. Native speakers of their language are now countable on one hand.

The Tangut are another interesting example. They had a very unique culture and writing system unlike anything else and had their own empire in the middle of China. They were wiped out/eventually absorbed by Mongols and were completely forgotten for centuries until their writings were recently rediscovered.

Written Chinese today is an evolution of only one of the many, many cultures that formed what China is today. Even Japanese people can read classic Chinese texts with just a little practice, but they're definitely a separate society and always have been.

You could also argue western European cultures are all just Rome since they retain parts of the Latin language and writing system and can make out some words if they squint enough.

yongjik said 6 months ago:

> Even written language in China is still largely intelligible to moderns ....

That's largely because Chinese characters themselves didn't change, even though the underlying sound and grammar changed. In your English example, imagine "ic" is written as "I", "nihte" as "night", and so on, so that every word is written as the modern spelling of its descendant word. It will be much easier to guess its meaning.

dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

True, and an interesting contrast in properties of Western alphabets vs. Eastern logosyllabic writing.

Advantage West: a compact, typeset- and keyboard-friendly characterset with a writing style that generally allows sounding out of unknown words.

Advantage East: a pronunciation-independent mapping of ideas allowing mutually unintelligible spoken language across either space (Japan, to some extent Korea, as well as modern Chinese provinces, particularly Mandarin vs. Cantonese) or time (modern vs. ancient) to at least largely understand one another.

Much of the shift in written English parallels changes in spoken English. Chinese doens't have that problem. But it's far harder to learn and type or encode in modern computers, where it is not letterforms but encodings standing for letterforms which are stored and projected via fonts and Unicode codepoints.

Chinese, as a tonal language is so dependent on inflection that my own primitive attempts to pronounce even simple phrases are not understood based on my incorrect tonality.

Contrast with various Germanic languages (German, English, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish), which vary greatly in pronunciation and orthography. German is spelled and spoken logically. Danish is spelled much like German but not pronounced the same. Norwegian pronunciation differs, but its spelling at least corresponds to that pronunciation. Swedish is pronounced very differently, and the spelling doesn't much conform.

All share common linguistic roots.

Each approach of writing and alphabet appears to be brittle in its own ways.

windoze said 6 months ago:

I would say the south eastern part of china has been relatively recognizable borders for a long time. Modern china is the result of Qing expansion around the 1650s. Take a look at the historical map by year - it's really amazing how quickly things changed at the turn of the century. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWqVzZnwnOk

mdemare said 6 months ago:

That text is over 1000 years old.

This is Shakespeare, from 1599:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones; So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus Hath told you Caesar was ambitious: If it were so, it was a grievous fault, And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.

Hardly foreign

dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

I'm given to understand (as I neither speak nor read Chinese) that a fairly typical high-school or college educated modern Chinese can at least read some Confucious (551-479 BCE). There is no comparable English-language case as 1) Old English didn't exist until the 5th century -- the Britons of Roman time (43 CE) were Celts and spoke Celtic, 2) The Latin alphabet hadn't been imported, and 3) literary tradition was slight -- largely oral.

Even taking the tack of following Germanic Anglo-Saxon culture buys you little -- spoken and written language would be unintelligible.

A Western college graduate of ancient languages today might understand Latin, which could get you to 240 BCE, or possibly, with a different alphabet, Greek, whose earliest writings, the Illiad and the Odyssey, date to the 6th century BCE in written form. But that's not a common skill.

Greek and Latin had been taught, as part of the high school curriculum, through the 1940s or 50s, but not generally any longer. Keep in mind that high school graduation rates in 1900 in the US were about 6%, lower than Ph.D. attainment rates today.

yesenadam said 6 months ago:

That's a modernised version! Because the original isn't easy to read, I guess. Punctuation, spelling, letterforms, the alphabet, have all changed since then. Pronunciation too. The original is something like this ('f' is the closest I can get to the old 's'):

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears:

I come to bury Cæfar, not to praife him:

The euill that men do, liues after them,

The good is oft enterred with their bones,

So let it be with Cæfar. The Noble Brutus,

Hath told you Cæfar was Ambitious:

If it were fo, it was a greeuous Fault,

And greeuoufly hath Cæfar anfwer'd it.

Heere, vnder leaue of Brutus, and the reft ...



mjw1007 said 6 months ago:

I think these days it should be OK to assume that people's browsers will render a long s directly: « praiſe ».

kace91 said 6 months ago:

> Even written language in China is still largely intelligible to moderns, from a thousand years ago or more. English, more than about 400 years ago is almost wholly foreign:

You're pretty much equating English and Europe when talking about language, which in this case is very wrong. I, as a spaniard, can read poetry from a thousand years ago perfectly fine, and we do indeed do it in school.

dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

In 1000 CE, the principle language of Spain was Arabic.

Though Spanish, Castillian, etc., were spoken. Well, back until 210 CE:


kace91 said 6 months ago:

Spanish (or the dozens of romance languages and dialects that would eventually converge to it, anyway) predated Arabic in the peninsula, and survived it. As a consequence, we study arabic presence as an invasion/influence that came and left, rather than "what our culture was" at the time - whether that's fair or not is an entirely different topic, but the point is that I can perfectly read the literature made in romance languages since it hasn't changed that much. Even latin would be somewhat understandable.

sk5t said 6 months ago:

> English, more than about 400 years ago is almost wholly foreign

Are you suggesting this text is from the 17th century? I'm no expert but this much Germanic influence seems much older.

ithkuil said 6 months ago:

Indeed it's much older:

"The poem is recorded in its fullest form in the Vercelli Book, a late-tenth-century West Saxon manuscript which was left in Northern Italy in Anglo-Saxon times. Vercelli is on the road to Rome; the manuscript was either abandoned or forgotten by a pious Anglo-Saxon pilgrim. An Old Northumbrian version of part of the poem also appears, carved in runic script, on the late-seventh-/early-eighth-century"

Source: https://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/stella/readings/OE/ROOD.HTM

bigfudge said 6 months ago:

It’s Anglo Saxon, which much older. With a bit of effort a modern speaker can read Chaucer which is about 1300

dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

I'm suggesting it's 1) English and 2) more than 400 years old.

m_mueller said 6 months ago:

Your reasoning is actually an argument for why Japan developed like Europe, and that's indeed largely what happened. Have a read on sengoku- and meiji period. Japan's trajectory was very different from China's. What you probably mean is the 250ish year stable edo period under the Tokugawa warlord control when the emperor was stripped of power.

Keysh said 6 months ago:

The Emperors were stripped of power back in the 12th Century, after the Genpei War and the formation of the Kamakura Shogunate. They remained stripped of power for almost the next seven hundred years; the power struggles were about who would get to be Shogun.

(The logic of the Meiji "Restoration" was essentially "Let's get rid of the archaic Shogunate system that has dominated Japan in one way or another for the last seven hundred years, and pretend we're handing power back to the Emperor where it really belongs.")

m_mueller said 6 months ago:

yes. what I wanted to say is that the emperor in Japan had a minor role for the longest time, i.e. it had a middle age that was not unlike Europe, with a steady development of warfare techniques and other parts of culture, as well as a constant trickle of foreign influences. Until edo period, where Tokugawa Shogunate was able to grab all power and basically freeze development and shut down borders. In Meiji, Japan industrialized rapidly under a US-backed emperor and with Germany as an ideal. There's a deeper reason why Japan wanted to become a European-style colonial power - because it was already on that path before the 250y stasis anyways, almost taking on Imperial China during Sengoku-jidai.

dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

The general form of this question, or at least one version of it ("why did the Industrial Revolution occur in England and not in China, which had developed a vastly larger set of technologies far earlier") is known as the Needham Question, after sinologist Joseph Needham, author of Science and Civilisation in China, an epic 30+ volume work covering Chinese invention and technology, begun in 1954 and still in process. (Needham himself died in the 1990s.) There's a fascinating Wikipedia article on the topic, and if you can find a copy of the completed volumes (many college/university libraries have it), it's a treat.

The general question of the how, why, and when of the Industrial Revolution has fascinated historians, technologists, and economists for ages. Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation, Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms,[1] and numerous other works address this.

Geographic determinism has become tremendously unpopular among historians, though elements of it carry weight with me. Of China and Japan vs. Europe and Britain, there are several factors:

- Political unity vs. disunity, as you note.

- Crops. Wheat is suitable to individual, independent farming. Rice requires community coordination.

- Hydrology. The Chinese empire effectively started as a large civil water works management bureaucracy. Outside Egypt and Rome's aqueducts, there was no similarly-scoped coordination in the West.

- Watersheds. Europe's rivers diverge from the interior, China's flow in parallel to relatively proximate mouths. Political boundaries in Europe have typically conformed reasonably well to watersheds, though allied / opposed alignments have changed with time. Even today, many county-level jurisdictions correspond to local watersheds. And in both China and Europe, virtually all heavy transport until modern times was along rivers or canals, if not sea or lakes.

- While Britain and Japan are both large islands near continental empires, the geology is utterly different: sedimentary with vast coal deposits, and volcanic with virtually no fossil fuels. While each island was tremendously politically stable, resistant to invasions, England could fuel growth of iron, glass, and steam industries, Japan could not. England was generally relatively wealthy, Japan was one of the poorest countries prior to industrialisation.

- China has long been politically unified (if subject to occasional invasions), Europe has long been politically fractured. China could shut down innovation and foreign trade. No such global policies were possible in Europe.

Within Europe, the distribution of coal is almost wholly in the north: Wales, England, a tiny patch in northern Spain, some in France, and heavy deposits in Germany and Poland. Southern Germany is very fuel-poor, excepting petroleum (not very handy in pre-industrial times) in Silesia, Romania, and Baku (Russia). Coal fueled metalurgy, glassmaking, and eventually steam power in England.

England's flat terrain and ready access to the sea (no part of Great Britain is more than 60 miles from the coast) made transport of the bulky fuel by ship viable. Overland transport wasn't an option -- firewood fuel locally gathered was far more attractive. A similar situation existed in the US where coal didn't overtake wood as a fuel until the 1880s. Rail transport finally made hauling coal from mountain-based mines in Apallachia possible, but benefited greatly from advances in steelmaking (Bessemer process, 1860s), allowing stronger, less fracture-prone rails, and stronger, more powerful locomotives. Rail is effectively canals-on-land, the first truly viable overland freight tansport mode.

There are many other factors, there's tremendous dispute over all of this, and as I've hinted, there's a large literature. I obviously find the geological argument at least plausible in many regards. Given the lack of testability, final adjudication of the question is unlikely.



1. Clark teaches a course at UC Davis on economic history before the Industrial Revolution, which touches somewhat on this (the principle focus is Europe). A corrected playlist for the YouTube lectures, in proper order, is here: https://pastebin.com/raw/bgKkGyjt

dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

For the curious, here's the watersheds of Europe map I had in mind:


The borders especially of Spain, France, the former Austro-Hungarian (better described as the Danubian) Empire, and much of Germany and Poland are reasonably well evidenced.

The Balkans are as fractured hydrologically as they are politically.

Currently contiguous peninsular regions are defined in significant part by their coasts rather than rivers, probably showing the significance of sea-borne transport. Norway and Sweden are divided along their fall line, as are Spain and France by the Pyreneese Mountains. Switzerland is an identifiable mountain valley.

What's impressive about Russia is how unified it is by waterways. The Volga-Baltic Waterway provides contiguous maritime communication from the Black Sea to the Baltic:


A comparable watersheds map of the US, showing the immensity of the Mississipi-Missouri-Ohio-Arkansas-Red river system:


(Also the utter insanity of most current US state boundaries. At least if you're a fish.)

And the comparable watersheds map of China:


vidarh said 6 months ago:

To add to your points on both flat terrain and waterways in England: in fact the current railway that runs a few blocks from my house runs along what used to be a canal dug from the Thames to enable transport. It was one of the last ones to open before the railway took over (and the operator went bankrupt and sold the land to a railway company that drained it and used the conveniently flattened land for more rails)

A local lake used to be an artificial reservoir to keep the canal filled.

The UK is full of canals that were viable to dig because of that flat terrain.

So large parts of England that were not reachable by river are still reachable by canal boat, and even more used to be before many of the canals were filled in or drained when no longer commercially viable for transport.

dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

And, researching just now: there are a few canals in Japan, though even a modern listing is short:


Among the earliest is the Takase River canal, in Kyoto, 9.7 kilometers, dug in 1611. Most of the remainder date to the 19th or 20th centuries.


The Tatsumi Canal was constructed in 1623, 11 km.


Contrast the UK:



dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

Right, though the bulk of canals in Europe were dug after 1500, and most of England's in the 18th & 19th centuries. This contrasts with Japan's general lack of same; digging through mountainous volcanic rock is far harder than flat limestone (and yields fewer fossils, another story).

China though has its Great Canal which dates to 12 BCE and has had pound locks since the 10th century: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Canal_(China)

In the US the Erie Canal opened up the West and cemented New York City as a transport, commerce, and financial hub, beginning in the 1830s.

riazrizvi said 6 months ago:

Clearly by the 13th Century China could be considered a technological forerunner, but then the Mongols took over. I suspect the cultural tendencies of the Chinese civil service that drove innovation just couldn’t weather the merging of cultures and the scholarly edge of Chinese culture was collateral damage.

dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

I'm still very weak on my Chinese history, but it was the turning-inward of the Ming dynasty (15th century), not the Mongol invasions, which precipitated the halt.

Also (as already mentioned in this thread), the asset-sheltering tendency of established power groups, halting the emergence of potential rivals, as Bernhard Stern documents in other (non-Chinese) instances.

toasterlovin said 6 months ago:

Thanks for that most excellent answer! It gets at the industrial revolution (and the importance of coal deposits), but the scientific revolution preceded the industrial revolution by quite some time and was not dependent on coal. Something was happening around the English Channel and what is now Germany starting in around the 1600s. Why there and not somewhere else?

dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

Again, views and theories vary greatly.

The Renaissance, printing, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the breaking of uniform Catholic control over thought and science. That's an area I've been exploring (I'm exploring a lot of areas, progress is slow), and it's fascinating.

The Bacons (Francis and Roger, no relation), free-thought movements especially in the north (Amsterdam and Copenhagen), and relative political freedom of inquiry in England all seem to have helped. It's interesting that the Enlightenment itself played heavily in Scotland, otherwise a hinterland (Adam Smith travelled to London for an education he didn't think much of, taking six weeks to make the journey by coach or on horseback, in the 1740s or 50s).

James Burke's television series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed cover much of this development (as well as earlier and later periods), and have been useful, though I'm starting to find holes in Burke's treatments (he wholly ignores Joseph Needham's work and Chinese invention, as examples).

Gregory Clark, mentioned above, has a generally excellent treatment of the question, one of the best I've read yet, though there's much I've yet to read.

Another excellent resource is the History of Information website. It's a useful place to explore questions such as this.


wavefunction said 6 months ago:

Were China and Japan really as peaceful as is sometimes stated? Just looking at a timeline of Chinese historical events (and probably by no means exhaustive) I see rebellions and invasions and peasant army uprisings for thousands of years: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Chinese_history

toasterlovin said 6 months ago:

Not peaceful, but stable and unified. Relatively. Consider that there has been something resembling a Chinese identity for several thousand years. Whereas Europe hasn’t been unified since the fall of the Roman Empire ~1600 years ago. And even then, the parts of Europe that played host to the scientific revolution were barely part of the Roman Empire. Or consider the fact that, relatively recently, the Japanese decided to cut off all contact with the outside world and forgo technological development. The idea of a European power trying to do similar is basically unthinkable due to the fact that they would have had half a dozen other nearby polities where no such restrictions were in place and change would have simply leaked in.

marcosdumay said 6 months ago:

> do you have an opinion on why the scientific revolution happened in Western Europe and not in the Mediterranean, which is similarly fractured, but also better situated for exchange of technology and ideas

Not the GP, but I think this one was very clearly caused by the English Revolution protecting people with weird ideas.

A large part of the early English intelligentsia was composed of people fleeing from persecution in Italy.

dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

The resistance to technological innovations is a very well-established human practice. I've shared Bernhard J. Stern's "Resistances to the Adoption of Technological Innovations" (1935) multiple times -- it's because I find it highly illuminating and well worth reading.

Original: https://archive.org/details/technologicaltre1937unitrich/pag... (faint copy)

Re-typed / markdown: https://pastebin.com/raw/Bapu75is (updated and corrected from April, 2019 version.)

WalterBright said 6 months ago:

I suspect the roman numeral system played a bigger role in retarding roman mathematics than the reddit postings suggest.

After all, it's fairly well known that the characteristics of a particular programming language have a strong influence on the way the language is used. (For instance, people don't do OOP or FP using C.)

jacobolus said 6 months ago:

Roman numerals are profoundly misunderstood by most people today, whose main knowledge about them is that various authority figures use them as an example of an awkward and cumbersome precursor to Hindu–Arabic numerals, backed up by a slight bit of personal experience learning to encode/decode Roman numerals, which is difficult because nobody today has any substantial amount of practice at it.

Roman numerals are a recording tool, not a calculating tool. Romans did calculations using pebbles or other counters on a counting board. Roman numerals are just a way of recording the state of a counting board before/after performing some algorithm. The goal of them is to be as direct and faithful a record of the counting board state as possible.

WalterBright said 6 months ago:

> Romans did calculations using pebbles or other counters on a counting board.

I think you just made my point :-)

Have fun doing long division that way.

jacobolus said 6 months ago:

You can do long division just fine on a counting board, though it is unclear if people had developed something like the modern elementary school division algorithm 2000+ years ago.

We don’t really know much about people’s calculation algorithms, because they were an oral tradition not written down, and only a very small number of counting boards (e.g. made of marble) survived; others were presumably made of leather, wood, cloth, lines scratched in the dirt, ....

Japanese soroban experts handily beat westerners at doing division, in both speed and accuracy. There is no reason to believe that calculation experts of the ancient world would not have been comparably competent.

WalterBright said 6 months ago:

> You can do long division just fine on a counting board

I searched around a bit, and didn't find much of anything you could do with a counting board beyond division.

mlyle said 6 months ago:

Counting boards / the abacus are about as good as you get for calculating methods until mechanical calculators and logarithmic slide rules. So it's not really fair to say the Romans had a disadvantage here when no one had anything better. (Granted, the wire abacus was faster than counting boards / jetons).

ghayes said 6 months ago:

Wouldn’t a slide-rule be a similar modern day approach?

jacobolus said 6 months ago:

An (analog) slide rule is a whole lot faster than doing digital arithmetic. But it’s approximate, yielding about 3 digits of precision, or maybe 4 digits on a large slide rule.

With an abacus or with written numbers, you can get 10 digits of precision (or 50) if you are willing to put the work in.

mlyle said 6 months ago:

You can iterate slide rule calculations to get more precision, too... You're not restricted to the width of your abacus nor the number of sigfigs you can get in a single slide rule calc..

yjftsjthsd-h said 6 months ago:

That's genuinely interesting, but doesn't really change that it's a terrible system for abstract calculations.

edanm said 6 months ago:

This is not the first time I've seen you writing about this on HN.

Do you have a good source to read more about this? Both about the distinction you're making (recording vs. calculation) and in general about historical capabilities around them? I'm very interested in learning more!

DonaldFisk said 6 months ago:

The Romans also used the abacus for numeric calculations: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_abacus

Koshkin said 6 months ago:

Yes, and in fact it was a seminal discovery that one can calculate (‘calculus’ means ‘pebble’) by manipulating symbols.

umanwizard said 6 months ago:

I'm not convinced. The filesystem layer on Linux and FreeBSD (and probably other OSs too, though I don't have knowledge) is totally object-oriented and written in C.

Gnome/GTK also encourage an object-oriented style in C, via GLib and GObject.

Also, Greek numerals were just as unwieldy as Roman ones (if not worse), and at any rate the Greeks did not use numbers in their mathematics. There's an enormous amount of math you can do without arithmetic and algebra.

(Edit: Saw your username after I posted this and I want to say that I respect you deeply -- I don't know of anyone else who has written a working C++ compiler almost by themselves. And I like D a lot, though have only had a very limited chance to use it professionally.)

WalterBright said 6 months ago:

I've seen OOP code written in Fortran-10. It blew my mind at the time (I didn't even know it was called OOP until years later).

But only once. And probably by someone who had learned OOP in another language that was built around OOP.

I was in the C business before, during, and after the OOP revolution. I never saw any OOP attempts in C before C++ came along and popularized OOP. Many C programmers didn't want to move to C++, and were determined to make it work in C. It did work, but the result was kinda hideous and terribly fragile (had to throw type safety out the window with all the necessary casting).

> I don't know of anyone else who has written a working C++ compiler almost by themselves

Neither do I :-) Thanks for the kind words.

williamDafoe said 6 months ago:

O-O is a state of mind and can be implemented in nearly all algorithmic languages, you just need senior people who know WTF they are doing. And I've seen a lot of spaghetti non-o-o code in places like the Google web crawler even though there are class definitions there are no actual objects.

saagarjha said 6 months ago:

> For instance, people don't do OOP or FP using C.

Oh, but they do. It’s just that their syntax is awful.

WalterBright said 6 months ago:

> It’s just that their syntax is awful.

I want to expand a bit on that. In the evolution of D, I have a front row seat on how people use it. It's hard to downplay how relatively minor syntactical changes can have a heavy influence on the programming paradigms people select. It's startling.

People will often say "but I can do that, too, in my favorite language X", and they are correct. But they don't actually do it in X because it's inconvenient.

For example, D has a built-in syntax for unittests. That gets pooh-poohed a lot as being pointless. But it's hard to argue with how transformational that has been for D programs. People expect unittests when writing D code. They didn't before. Unittests often occupy more lines of code than what they tested. The addition of a very minor bit of syntactic sugar changed the whole way people write D code.

WalterBright said 6 months ago:

Yes, I've seen OOP etc. done in C. As you say, it's awful, and so people don't do it. People devise their algorithms and data structures in ways that work smoothly with the language's features.

I'm sure you can compute sine and cosine tables using Roman numerals, too. But it would be so awfully ugly and tedious it's hardly a surprise that few would consider attempting it.

jacobolus said 6 months ago:

> I'm sure you can compute sine and cosine tables using Roman numerals, too. But it would be so awfully ugly and tedious it's hardly a surprise that few would consider attempting it.

Ptolemy’s table of chords was calculated in base 60 (inherited from Mesopotamians), by probably a Roman citizen living in Egypt and writing in Greek.

It was probably done on some kind of a counting board analogous to the ones used for decimal calculations. Hellenistic mathematicians didn’t do written arithmetic either.

And yes, making such tables is inherently “awfully ugly and tedious”, unless you have an electronic calculator to do it for you.

WalterBright said 6 months ago:

Yeah, I've seen that table. It was just a few entries, if I recall correctly. Few enough that one could have gotten the numbers by using drawings instead of calculation. And there were errors in it, too.

> And yes, making such tables is inherently “awfully ugly and tedious”,

Yup, but people did make such extensive tables long before calculators, many thousands more entries than that chord table, and far more accurately.

jacobolus said 6 months ago:

Ptolemy’s table has the chords for every possible angle in ½° increments (360 table entries in all), to 3 sexagesimal digits of precision, or about 5.5 decimal digits of precision. It also had an additional column showing the derivative of the chord function at each ½° at 5 sexagesimal digits of precision, for use interpolating at arbitrary angles in between the listed ½° increments. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ptolemy%27s_table_of_chords

You might be thinking of Hipparchus’s table (from a few centuries earlier) which only had multiples of 7½°.

WalterBright said 6 months ago:

> You might be thinking of Hipparchus’s table

Sounds like it.

pochamago said 6 months ago:

This is what I've heard. Planet Money has a good episode on how the invention of modern book keeping was significantly influenced by the adoption of Arabic numerals during the Renaissance

said 6 months ago:
Keysh said 6 months ago:

As someone else pointed out, this does nothing to explain why Roman-era mathematics seems to have stagnated, compared to the Classical and Hellenistic Greek mathematics that preceded it. Greek mathematicians didn't have access to Indian/Arabic numbers either. (And it mistakes "using numbers" for "mathematics" -- much of Greek mathematics was focused on geometry.)

FranzFerdiNaN said 6 months ago:

Romans valued pragmatic skills over theoretical discussions. They clearly knew their math and the numbering system was not an issue for their engineers. They just didn’t care for philosophizing about the nature of geometry like the Greeks did. They preferred someone inventing an odometer or a way to detect tax fraud.

said 6 months ago:
buu700 said 6 months ago:

How bizarre. I was wondering if you and I had read the same post here; turns out we hadn't.

The original answer that I read yesterday has since been removed by the mods for some reason.


[-] ImOuttaThyme66 points 16 hours ago

[Their number system.](http://storyofmathematics.com/roman.html)

Mathematician in studying here with a side hobby of history. Sources are included throughout.

You may recall from elementary school or personal perusing of Roman history books that they had their own numeral system with letters instead of their own numerals, excerpts of the Latin Alphabet. I is 1, C is 100, and so on.

The Romans did decent with their numeral system. They could add, subtract, multiply and divide with their numbers. However, it was missing two very important principles, if that's the right word, that today's Arabic numbers have.

The first is the idea of zero in mathematics. They knew the concept of nothing yes but they had no numeral for the number "zero." So essentially, try doing your own math homework without using the number zero in the one's place, the ten's place, and so on. Now, zero itself didn't come with Arabic numbers but they did come from an ancestor. [Origins of Zero](https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/origin-number-zero-18...)

Which led to the second problem with Roman numerals. Their numbers do not work on a positional system. Today's Arabic numbers, 0-9 work on a positional system. That is, we have the one's place, go left one digit, ten's place, left again, hundred's place, and so on. Each digit in a number is the base raised to a certain power. And this is what makes addition, subtraction, multiplication and division so easy to do with Arabic numbers, especially with the concept of zero, a placeholder to place in a certain space when a number has no "tens" or "hundreds" or "ones". Like 109. It has 9 ones, and 1 hundred, but no tens. Without zero, we couldn't be able to write it out like this.

A little sidenote here, technically, the Romans did have a positional system. That is, the greater numerals were on the left and the lesser ones were on the right unless they were using two numerals to communicate numbers. So, it's not an explicit positional system like we do today, in which each digit means a certain number, they did order their numbers around based on size.

Now, in fairness, the Romans simplified their numeral system a little over the years by adding two principles, subtraction and multiplication. What the Romans did was that whenever they placed a smaller number before a bigger number, those two numbers communicated a new number entirely by subtracting the smaller from the bigger. So for example, 109, CIX, the IX becomes worth 9 because X (10) - I (1) is IX (9).

Multiplication, to indicate 1000's, they would put a line over the symbol, and that would be the same as multiplying it by a 1000.

Let's do a little Roman math.

For Roman numerals, 109 would be written out as CIX. Great, we get the amount communicated. Let's say we want to add 32 to this number in Roman numerals. 32 in Roman is XXXII.


Immediately, there's a problem. We have to separate the various numbers. So CIX becomes C IX and XXXII becomes XXX II. Now we can add them together by going "Okay, IX plus I makes X, there's an I remaining, X joins the three other Xs so we now get CXXXXI." aka 141 in today's numbers.

Let's imagine as if we did that with our numbers. Let's add 109 and 32 again. Only, we're adding 100 and 9 and 30 and 2. We know 9 + 2 makes 10 and 1. We know 10 and 30 makes 40. We have 1 and 100 remaining, there's nothing else to add them together so they stay like that. The resulting number becomes 100 and 40 and 1. Exhausting.

So, addition is possible. Subtraction is also possible. You have to go through the entire grouping of bases to do it but it is possible. Multiplication is somewhat possible but very iffy, having to do all those grouping of bases manually.

Division. Division was the hell of the Roman numeral system. The Romans did not have decimals. They had fractions but they did it in duodecimal form, that is, 12ths. They did not have a 1/10th. There was no talking about that explicitly, they preferred to do everything in 12ths. Now, this makes sense, 12 has many factors compared to 10. You can divide 12 by 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 12 itself whereas you can only divide 10 into 1, 2, 5, and 10. There are plenty of people who believe we should move to a duodecimal system. Then again, the French attempted installing a decimal system for time during the French Revolution. Maybe not all ideas are popular.

Either way, Romans did not have very explicit fractions. They had the base fractions 1/12 through 12/12, then they continued on from there by dividing them further. Like 1/144 (1/12 * 1/12) or 1/8 (3/12 * 6/12). More information on Roman fractions can be found [here](http://dmaher.org/Publications/romanarithmetic.pdf). Another side fact of their fractions was that they always named them as fractions of something, such as 1/12 of as, which was a currency. Never 1/12 by itself.

So, now that we've gone through the clusterfuck that is Roman numerology, we can pretty much understand why they didn't advance the mathematics field too much. It was functional for their time. The Romans still did many grand engineering feats that were no doubt developed from this number system. However, when it came to further mathematics such as calculus, which would finally be found by Newton and Leibniz independent of each other in the mid 17th century, you can't get any further when you don't have a positional system that makes adding/subtracting a lot easier, no numeral for the number 0, and your dividing tactics do not allow you to do decimals very well, especially when your numerals are 1, 5, and then powers of 10. Decimals could be made possible with these numerals yes but it would be insanely difficult to understand and is made so much easier when you assign every basic integer, like zero through nine for instance, their own numeral.

And that's probably why the Romans didn't do very well in mathematical advancement.

w8rbt said 6 months ago:

I was under the impression that the Romans were more applied/practical and less theoretical, but I may be wrong. I got that notion from a professor I had years ago who was fond of saying, "The Romans built roads. The Greeks talked about building roads." Has anyone else ever heard that saying?

riffraff said 6 months ago:

I've heard "Greeks were mathematicians, Romans were engineers", which conveys the same concept.

mjfl said 6 months ago:

They probably innovated in math, in some form of risk modeling or something, but no single fancy intellectual wrote it all down:


boomboomsubban said 6 months ago:

I'm not an expert here, but wasn't the development of "zero" a rather monumental leap that was required before you could advance past Greek math? The spread into the Islamic world certainly enabled them to finally push past the Greeks.

dwheeler said 6 months ago:

In general the ancient Romans were more interested in mathematical application, instead of abstraction. I think that's true for many other ancient civilizations as well. It's not true that the Romans didn't understand mathematics, they were spectacular engineers. They just focused on something different.

The Romans invented Roman numerals, and it's important to acknowledge that this was a mathematical achievement even though we don't use them as much any more. By putting smaller numbers in front of larger ones, they created a number writing system where you did not have to learn a large number of symbols yet any particular number was short and easy to write. Greek numbers had separate symbols not only for one through nine, but for each of the symbols 10 through 90, which meant you had to learn a lot more symbols for just one through 99.

It's true that doing calculations with Roman numerals is a pain, especially division, but I don't think the Romans thought this was a big deal. Calculations were typically done using an abacus anyway, so you simply needed a simple way to record results.

known said 6 months ago:

The Arabic countries led by the Muslims were the most advanced scientists/engineers in the world, until they let the religious crazies take over. J https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_science_and_engine...

Sag0Sag0 said 6 months ago:

I just have to object.

Early science throughout the world came about because of religion, not despite it. Early Muslim proto scientists like Ibn Sina and Ibn Khaldun explicitly did their science through religion and were heavily involved the religious politics of the day. This was also true also of early scientists in europe like Issac Newton.

Also that statement implicitly kinda carries the idea that europeans took over role of the "advancers of science" due to their tolerance and secularism. That was certainly not the case, european christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries was not in any way tolerant/moderate.

Similarly even if we agree that a decline occurred there are a myriad of other factors that could potentially cause a drop in scientific output such as the various consequences of war, the policies of the Ottoman empire, a lack of the urbanisation that occurred in China and Europe etc.

empath75 said 6 months ago:

The Pythagoreans were also a religious group, as well as the platonists who followed them.

sumitviii said 6 months ago:

Maybe its like a going-under for them as a civilization?

strainer said 6 months ago:

Consider the title of this famous Great work wrote later : "The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing"

It has a graceful theme which is perhaps not accidental for mathematical inspiration. The same symbolic methods, being symbolic could have been painted as "domination and sacrificing" but that might not temper a mindset as mathematically conducive as notions of "completion and balancing".

A cultures achievements in different areas could owe substantially to the spectrum of mindsets which it hosts and celebrates.

sumitviii said 6 months ago:

>but that might not temper a mindset as mathematically conducive as notions of "completion and balancing".

Or maybe what would be considered a mathematically conducive mindset is determined by whose mathematical tradition we are following? Maybe there exists a mathematical mindset out there where "domination and sacrificing" are the requirement for conductivity of ideas?

strainer said 6 months ago:

It would seem to be a well kept secret branch if so

sumitviii said 6 months ago:

By out there I don't mean in the physical world, I mean in the world of possibility.

29athrowaway said 6 months ago:

Paper makes you productive. Romans did not have it.

They had papyrus, parchments and wax tablets, none of them were as convenient or affordable as paper.

The adoption of paper was what really set things in motion in Europe, the Renaissance.

Bayart said 6 months ago:

>They had papyrus, parchments and wax tablets, none of them were as convenient or affordable as paper.

Papyrus is cheap, easy to make and affordable. It would certainly have been much cheaper than paper, which didn't become any good until substantial industrial and chemical advancements. It was used all over the place. We don't have much left from the Northern Mediterranean because it rots.

Wax tablets were used until the 19th century because it's also cheap and practical.

Velum didn't become mainstream until the Islamic invasion of Egypt cut the supply of papyrus.

>The adoption of paper was what really set things in motion in Europe, the Renaissance.

The idea that there was a Renaissance at all is dubious. Paper was certainly a step up from velum. But It would have been much better for everyone if we could just have used papyrus continuously.

29athrowaway said 6 months ago:

Paper is thin, light, durable... you can make books from it and transport them easily. It can be manufactured from materials available in abundance in Europe.

A book made of wax tablets, or velum is not as good. I don't imagine vast libraries and universities running on books made of wax tablets or velum.

With respect to Papyrus, I agree. The Great Library of Alexandria was all papyrus. It can be produced at scale. But Europeans had to import it from far, far away.

yesenadam said 6 months ago:

Paper - yet another Chinese invention, about 100AD, along with movable type printing, about 1000AD. With gunpowder and compass, two more Chinese inventions, Europeans navigated and conquered the world..

said 6 months ago:
29athrowaway said 6 months ago:

And technology and animals from the fertile crescent, efficient crops from the Americas, African slaves and significant military help from local groups.

A lot of merit to share.

Gatsky said 6 months ago:

Makes you wonder what will be said for our era in 500 years time...

markholmes said 6 months ago:

Does it? We visited the moon and created the internet in the span of one generation. We are arguably in the most innovative scientific period in our history.

fortran77 said 6 months ago:

Probably the discovery of solid state devices and the invention of the digital computer is more important than the "Internet"

dkersten said 6 months ago:

We will be remembered for our most important achievement: bringing high speed access to cat pictures to the masses.

abdullahkhalids said 6 months ago:

Nope. Our most important achievement has been to create a system where smart people spend their life trying to get people to click on ads, using morally dubious dark-patterns.

cbHXBY1D said 6 months ago:

If I had to bet, western society will be judged for creating an industrialized world while knowingly ignoring the effect of greenhouse gases.

abdullahkhalids said 6 months ago:

The climate change issue is mostly a political problem, as sustainable ways of modern living have been known for decades, created by society and politicians not caring about the global impacts of local decisions. The almost-dystopian socialmedia/pervasive-ads/misinformation/compromised-democracy internet landscape is mostly a technological problem, an outcome of computer scientists and engineers just building things without thinking of the ethics of their technology. Nobody campaigned to build facebook, like they campaigned to build another coal power plant or another highway. The nerds and politicians alike are on their way to destroy the world - one compromising our minds, the other poisoning our air.

The failure of our times has been just this. Not realizing that when what you are doing has global impact you need to think hard about its effects and be crystal clear on the ethics of it all. Perhaps the original sin was not pushing for more hands-on ethics training for every child and college student.

juanbyrge said 6 months ago:

To be fair I think the severity of climate change has only come into mainstream focus in the past 5-10 years. Just as one data point, when I was shopping for a car in 2012, I did not even consider CO2 emissions. Now, climate change is top of mind for me. I now own an electric car, stopped eating beef, mostly eliminated travel, etc... I'm not saying this will make a difference overall, but I imagine others feel similarly, and a lot of young people will hopefully be in a position to work on solving some of these problems.

FranzFerdiNaN said 6 months ago:

Thanks to fossil fuel companies like Exxon spending billions to confuse the general public, bribe politicians and do everything else needed to spread lies so they could keep their profits up. Exxons own research already confirmed climate change was caused by fossil fuels in the 1970s, yet they sat on it doing nothing.

The Kyoto Protocol was in 1997, but the US didn’t ratify it because the API managed to influence US politicians enough to cast doubt on the problem.

Fickry said 6 months ago:

Imagine without oil, arab country must be poor

tech2 said 6 months ago:

Just because I've been holding on to this link for a while now - https://i.imgur.com/efbNO4X.jpg

Granted, NZ's a small country, but if it was known about there pre Great War, I suspect many people knew about it elsewhere too.

It is one of those things that until very recently had been quite easy to ignore though I suppose (and many still try even now).

dkersten said 6 months ago:

None of this matters as long as we have high speed access to an infinite supply of cat pictures.

HarryHirsch said 6 months ago:

We are selling ads and moving money from one desk onto another instead of addressing antibiotic resistance and climate change.

derp_dee_derp said 6 months ago:

You lack serious historical context.

We went fromom electricity to flight to nuclear to space flight to the internet in less than 150 years.

Its been less than 100 years since antibiotics were invented, so, sorry we aren't addressing antibiotic resistance at a fast enough pace for you.

Hope you don't mind all those vaccines that are keeping you healthy and providing here immunity: they've only been around for about 130 years.

It's the most innovative time in human history, despite your negativity.

geniium said 6 months ago:

Antibiotic resistance has been marked as top #1 priority for WHO [1]. It's a huge problem not much people realise.

[1] https://www.who.int/en

HarryHirsch said 6 months ago:

The first powered aircraft flew in the 1900s, and by the 1940s we had jet aircraft. The Boeing 747 was introduced in the 1960s, and in the 1970s we had supersonic flight. The pace of innovation has stalled since.

jcranmer said 6 months ago:

We sculpt rocks to dimensions that are most easily measured in terms of layers of atoms for the price of mere dollars per rock.

sumitviii said 6 months ago:

And might soon be able to design life! Present FTW!!!

jbay808 said 6 months ago:

"and in the 1970s we had supersonic flight"


dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

I suspect commercial supersonic flight was meant.

Concorde was testing by 1969, but didn't carry passengers until 1976.

The USSR's Tu-144 actually beat Concorde on both dates -- 1968 and 1975. Though it also beat Concorde, by 25 years, on retirement from passenger service: 1978.

Gatsky said 6 months ago:

Yes, I wasn’t trying to be disparaging.

Interesting though you cite mainly engineering achievements, I had a similar feeling that we are in a phase of engineering/materials advancements, particularly sub-microscale in the post-WW2 period. But having said that, technological advances of this kind tend to end up as historical footnotes, no matter how amazing they seem at the time.

I think vaccines and antibiotics are probably our era’s truly great technological advance that kids will still learn about post 26th century. But quantum mechanics and relativity are really our Pythagoras’ theorem equivalents, and will stay in textbooks for a very, very long time.

said 6 months ago:
oneepic said 6 months ago:

O/T: One real answer, and multiple bot posts, including one about removing another real person's comment. As a person who doesn't read much Reddit, it leaves a really strange impression.

Anyway, the top answer was still a cool read.

dredmorbius said 6 months ago:

As others have noted: AskHistorians is one of the most aggressively- and well-moderated forums on Reddit.

Answers must be accurate, researched, supported, and factual. Generally, "scholarly". It's not uncommon to find posts with a thousand or more votes, and 100s of comments, all removed. The mods are looking for good answers. As are most of the readers.

The result may be frustrating for commenters, but that's really not the point.

I actually had an opportunity to answer on a subject which I've some familiarity last week, and got mention in the weekly wrap-up for it, which was kind of nice. A bit more than I deserved, really.

(I was talking trash ... but at least that was the topic.)

umanwizard said 6 months ago:

This is typical of /r/AskHistorians , not Reddit as a whole.

They have an explicit policy of removing any amateurish or unsourced answers, in order to keep quality high.

msla said 6 months ago:

And they still get things drastically wrong sometimes:


Judgmentality said 6 months ago:

Doesn't that imply that the rest of reddit which is less heavily moderated has more low quality comments?

umanwizard said 6 months ago:

Yes, and IMO it really does.

mdorazio said 6 months ago:


scarejunba said 6 months ago:

It's a "serious" subreddit. Unlike HN (or many other subreddits), where you can say something completely incorrect and be upvoted by the army of uninformed people, /r/askhistorians specifically allows only well-sourced posts.

Chathamization said 6 months ago:

It's not uncommon to see incorrect answers highly upvoted on AskHistorians - even ones from flaired users. That's one of the problems with the sub - though it's better than most Reddit subs, it's still far below the quality that most of its users and moderators believe it to be. Like with Wikipedia, you need to be skeptical of claims and actually look at the sources.

HoveringOrb said 6 months ago:

But mostly, it's a graveyard of unanswered questions.

_emacsomancer_ said 6 months ago:

And so fairly representative of the real world.

LeonB said 6 months ago:

Yeh, what have the Romans ever done for us?


williamDafoe said 6 months ago:

I bet it's a bitch to learn addition or multiplication using Roman numerals!

ithkuil said 6 months ago:

You might find this interesting:


fortran77 said 6 months ago:

We still use their numbering system today, in prefaces and clocks!

jackcosgrove said 6 months ago:

And SuperBowls.