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A Legend about an Ancient Indian Math Text

There is a famous legend about the source of the title of a textbook written by the 12th century Indian mathematician Bhaskara. According to the legend, the horoscope of Bhaskara's daughter indicated that there was only one auspicious moment for her to marry. As she was leaning over a water-clock, a pearl from her necklace fell into the clock and blocked its movement. As a result, the auspicious time for her marriage passed without notice. To console his daughter, who could now never marry, Bhaskara is said to have named his mathematics text, Lilavati, after her. Where did this legened come from and how much truth does it contain? This question intrigued E. Allyn Smith, an undergraduate student, and Kim Plofker, a historian of exact sciences at Brown University. Plofker explored this question in her lecture entitled "The Mathematics Textbook and the Disappointed Daughter: History of a Mathematical Urban Legend." Although the legend is plausible, Plofker noted, there appears to be no historically reliable source for it. Most Sanskrit mathematics texts from this era contain very little information about their authors, much less their families. The legend seems to originate in a late 16th-century translation of the Lilavati into Persian, in which the translator claims to have been told the story of Bhaskara's daughter by some Hindu colleagues. Over the years, the legend morphed into many different versions---so many that it is "downright scary", said Plofker, for anyone who cares about accuracy in mathematical history. In particular, Plofker noted that the story became a skeleton on which writers could hang their own views, which were sometimes inaccurate or ignorant.

--- Allyn Jackson, Deputy Editor, Notices of the AMS

[Plofker's talk was part of the AMS-MAA Special Session The History of Mathematics on January 17.]

More highlights of the 2003 Joint Mathematics Meetings

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