November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Casual Observer/Mark Levy

ROMAN NUMERALS:

Is it time to turn back the clock?

 

Am I the only one who’s pretty darn tired of those Arabic numerals we’re all stuck with? I’m not saying they don’t work, or that the person who invented the zero wasn’t a genius. In fact, I think someone should award a Nobel Prize in mathematics posthumously, if we ever discover his or her name. Why not? You have to be dead for 10 years before you get a postage stamp issued in your honor. On second thought, a big zero on a postage stamp might be confusing, so forget the postage stamp idea. But the posthumous Nobel Prize is still a possibility. And think how much that would be worth now, with compound interest.

By the way, Arabs did not invent Arabic numerals. A person in India, reputedly a Hindu, did. Although how anyone knows his religion is beyond me. It happened around 500 A.D. How’s that for trivia? The rest of the civilized world didn’t adopt Arabic numerals for about 700 years. Some ideas just take longer to accept than others. Just ask Italo Marchiony, who may have invented the ice cream cone. Oh, bad example. Anyway, that’s an essay for another time.

Well, let’s get back to the Arabic numerals themselves. Sure we can express size, distance, dates, and quantities conveniently. Sure we can add, subtract, multiply, and the other thing I forgot. But where is the beauty, the elegance? Can numbers like 1 and 4 and 7 really rise to the aesthetic level of, say, MMDCXIV?

Obviously, I’m not alone in preferring Roman numerals for some things. That helps explain why the movie Rocky IV was popular, I think. More trivia: Sylvester Stallone is an Italian American, as you probably know from his 1970 movie, “The Italian Stallion.”

How about athletic events? Who could possibly want to see Super Bowl XLVI referred to any other way?

For all you analog people out there, how convenient is it to have Roman numerals on your wristwatch? Or does anyone still have a wristwatch now that cell phones have taken over the planet?

Speaking of arithmetic operations, why can’t we use Roman numerals to balance our checkbook? It’s really very simple. Let me show you.

Let’s say you have MLXII dollars in your checking account and you write a check for XII dollars to the IRS. MLXII minus XII equals ML. Simple, right?

“Ahh,” you say. “But what if — now that the IRS is paid off — I want to write a check for, say, LIV dollars to donate to my public radio station? How do I subtract LIV from ML?”

“Just like with Arabic numerals,” I say, smugly but patiently. You have to borrow an I from the sixth to last column, leaving DCCCCLLLLXXXXX or DCCCCLLLLXXXXVIIIII, if you’re thinking ahead like Julius Caesar should have before he bumped into Brutus who was enjoying a pizza one day.

Now simply remove LIV, digit by digit, from that awfully long expression equivalent to ML, and what do you get? Let’s see, VIIIII minus X, borrow from the closest D, move one of the Cs to the right column, make change of XXXXX. Of course, X minus IV equals VI, and the answer just falls out: MCMILVI. Easy as rigatoni. What could be simpler?

Honestly, with a bit of training, we can go back to basics, back to the good old days, just like the last 1600 years never happened.

REFRESHER COURSE:

 

Credit: Kent State University
(and ancient Rome)


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Anthony Haden Guest