Saturday, March 8, 2003
M I N D  G A M E S

Enter the dragon
Aditya Rishi

On two occasions I have been asked (by members of Parliament about his invention, analysing engine), "Pray, Mr Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question. Charles Babbage, father of computing (1792-1871)

LATER "the calculator" to Mr Processor, the computer: "Arthur C. Clarke wrote a story, 'Into the Comet', in which, when a ship enters a comet to explore it, the crew discovers that the ship computer is no longer functioning and radio contact with the outside world has been lost. This means they won't be able to return home. During a dream, one of the crew remembers using an abacus as a boy. He fashions one out of spare supplies and convinces the captain of its worthiness, following which, the crew builds a number of devices to calculate the course back."

"A particular kind of abacus will appear in the future. It will tell you nothing that's not already in the multiplication tables, but a collective amnesia will make people unable to remember the tables. When asked trivial questions like "how much is 13 times 15", most persons will have to stop and think, or take out small abaci from their pockets. Immense efforts will be invested in the construction of gigantic super-abaci, each the size of a dozen large cupboards put together, that will be able to chant the entire law of additions and multiplications hundreds of times every second."


Mr Processor: "Why would anyone want to chant so many multiplications?" Later: "All operations of consciousness can be derived from numbers. The sky of the Gods is filled with mathematical wonders. When abaci reach a certain degree of sophistication, non-physical entities will sneak in and take residence inside these, like ghosts in the machine. The abaci will start behaving in an incomprehensible way."

"What has he been saying about me?" says Abacus Abu, dropping in suddenly. Later (recovering): "He knows nothing about you, so, he was just curious."

Abu: "Abacus is probably the first of calculating devices; the word abacus comes from Phoenician abak (sand), Greek abax and Hebrew avak (dust). The Ancients used a flat surface with sand strewn over it as a tool for writing and counting. Later-day abaci had grooves for small pebbles and, after that, wires and counters. Each wire corresponds to a digit in a positional number system, commonly in base 10. Till Renaissance, calculation was done on the devices with authentic place-value system, in which, zero was represented by an empty line or groove. Zero, borrowed by Arabs from Hindus, was introduced in Europe in 1202 by Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa in his 'Liber Abaci' (The Book of Abacus). Counting with abaci was so convenient that no one wrote symbols on any paper."

Mr Processor: "You mean you were as indispensable as I am, now, or calculator was, before I came in?" "Yes," says Abu. (To be continued; write at The Tribune or [email protected])