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Where do math symbols come from? - John David Walters

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Math is full of symbols: lines, dots, arrows, English letters, Greek letters, superscripts, subscripts ... it can look like an illegible jumble. Where did all of these symbols come from? John David Walters shares the origins of mathematical symbols, and illuminates why they’re still so important in the field today.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator John David Walters
  • Director Chris Bishop
  • Script Editor Eleanor Nelsen
  • Animator Chris Bishop
  • Associate Producer Jessica Ruby
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
Additional Resources for you to Explore
An excellent summary of historical information about the origin of many common mathematical symbols is the Wikipedia article on the subject. For those who want to dive deeper, the classic study by Florian Cajori is a great source.

More information about the life of Robert Recorde can be found at the MacTutor History of Mathematics archive.

Part of the inspiration for this lesson came from Richard Feynman’s fascinating anecdote about inventing his own mathematical notation in high school. It is found in one of his essays, titled “He Fixes Radios by Thinking!” collected in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator John David Walters
  • Director Chris Bishop
  • Script Editor Eleanor Nelsen
  • Animator Chris Bishop
  • Associate Producer Jessica Ruby
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Addison Anderson