Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | July 8, 2018

Why does algebra have letters in sums?

My answer to a question on Quora:

Why does algebra have letters in sums?

One should not underestimate the influence of François Viète who was the first to use algebraic notation (letters) not only for unknowns but also for parameters (knowns) in a problem. He also used, as Wiki states, “simplification of equations by the substitution of new quantities having a certain connection with the primitive unknown quantities”. Importantly, Viète is the first cryptographer and cryptanalist know to us by name. His decryption of intercepted diplomatic correspondence had direct effect on European politics of his time. A really juicy bit from the Wiki:

In 1590, Viète discovered the key to a Spanish cipher, consisting of more than 500 characters, and this meant that all dispatches in that language which fell into the hands of the French could be easily read.

Henry IV published a letter from Commander Moreo to the king of Spain. The contents of this letter, read by Viète, revealed that the head of the League in France, the Duke of Mayenne, planned to become king in place of Henry IV. This publication led to the settlement of the Wars of Religion. The king of Spain accused Viète of having used magical powers.

At that time, encryption of texts mostly used substitution ciphers, and the idea of substitution of letters for numbers should be very natural for Vieta.

I modestly suggest that teachers could perhaps use this idea: teaching primary school children some basic substitution ciphers: it is fun, it is a natural spelling exercise, and, I believe, a good propaedeutic for later study of algebra and computer coding.

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