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Arabic Numerals, the Supreme Court, and Where Credit Is Due

I agree with Josh that Justice Breyer’s opinion in Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc. is a great read, but I had some questions about this passage:

Sun decided, for example, that its API [Application Programming Interface] would call up a task that compares one integer with another to see which is the larger. Sun’s API (to our knowledge) will not call up the task of determining which great Arabic scholar decided to use Arabic numerals (rather than Roman numerals) to perform that “larger integer” task.

(1) Is this some specific pun or cultural allusion that I’m missing? Or is it just a reference to the fact that a different Google product—Google Search—would be used to make that determination, coupled with a shout-out to Arabic mathematics?

And if the latter, is the reference to “great Arabic scholar” quite right, or might it be Hindu scholars (or perhaps Persian scholars) who deserve the credit?

(2) What does it mean to suggest (if I’m understanding the suggestion correctly) that a computer is using Arabic numerals rather than Roman numerals to perform a “max” function, given that the computer using binary? I suppose binary can be said to be inspired by Hindu-Arabic numerals, in that it’s a place-value notation; is that it? Also, does it seem odd to think of electrical states as “numerals”? Or is the opinion simply referring to how modern humans do the maximum determination, rather than to how computers do it?

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Eugene Volokh

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