“The decimal number system is so familiar to us that one might forget that it actually had to be invented by someone. This someone also had to find out how to add, subtract, multiply and divide such numbers. His name is Simon Stevin”
The wrong information here is from the Foreword by a Nobel Laureate (for Physics in 1999) of a book published in 2008 about Simon Stevin who wrote a book about the decimal number system in 1585. Until 1948, even the researchers in history of math assumed that Stevin was the inventor of the decimal point and decimal fractions. However, based on the research on primary sources it is now well established that the decimal number system was known as early as the 6th century in India, and the decimal point and decimal fractions were already introduced in a book written by an Islamic scholar in 952.
Researchers also discovered in 1950’s and 1970’s that Copernicus, who is one of the icons of Renaissance and the scientific revolution, made a direct use of very important material in mathematics and astronomy from multiple Islamic scholars who lived 2 or 3 centuries before him. Yet, most educated people still do not know about these connections (did you know this?) despite the fact that it has been many decades after the discovery of these connections by modern researchers.
Why is it that Nobel Laureate has false information about something very basic in history of science (which is easily refuted even by the wikipedia) and spreads it? Why is it that most educated people do not know about the connections between the scientific progress in the Islamic civilization and its influence on Renaissance Europe? Why is it that most people have no idea about the first scientist in history who insisted on using experimentation in a systematic way to justify hypotheses in scientific problems?
A major reason for this is the ubiquitous classical narrative of science. The classical narrative is a Eurocentric narrative of science which was written not so much based on actual evidence but with a certain ideology. According to this narrative the science was born in ancient Greek and was revived in Renaissance. Other civilizations (specifically the Islamic civilization) were at best preservers, rather than creators of scientific knowledge. This narrative has been going on for so long and it is so common that it is now very hard to correct all of these misconceptions and the damage it caused. Researchers discovered a lot of evidence since the middle of the 20th century to challenge and disprove many tenets of the classical narrative. However, this information does not get to the general public, even to the highly educated people. Only very few people who are familiar with the research in this area know about it. Another major reason for this unfortunate state of affairs is what’s being taught at schools on this topic. Typically, students learn about the ancient Greeks and then Renaissance. What was in between is not interesting because it was “dark ages”. It was however a golden age for the Islamic civilization who made profound contributions to science that shaped the science ever since with an everlasting impact. What would the modern science look like without the “Arabic numerals”, the decimal point, the concept of algorithm, the scientific method, and important works in astronomy that Copernicus made a direct use of? When Islamic civilization is actually taught in schools, it is usually taught in religious and political terms with little or no mention of the intellectual and scientific contributions. We actually do not understand European Renaissance if we ignore its connections with the Islamic scientific tradition. Researchers, who actually studied Copernican astronomy and the works of Islamic mathematicians and astronomers came to this conclusion: “In a very real sense, Copernicus can be looked upon as, if not the last, surely the most noted follower of the Maragha School” , a much different assessment than what the classical narrative teaches.
It is time to review what we are teaching our kids about history of science, Renaissance and the scientific revolution. But first we need to educate ourselves about it. If you are wondering where to start, here are a few links.