MadSci Network: Science History

Re: How did scientific notation get it's name?

Date: Sun Feb 27 13:40:45 2005
Posted By: Mark Huber, Assistant Professor, Mathematics and Statistics
Area of science: Science History
ID: 1108418463.Sh

Question: How did scientific notation get its name?
From: sommer
Grade: 7-9

The Oxford English Dictionary ( keeps records of the first time that any particular word appears in print. The first recorded use of the term scientific notation goes back to 1961 in the third edition of the New international dictionary of the English language.

Now, the word does not appear in the second edition of this dictionary, published in 1934, so the term was probably invented sometime in the 1940's or 1950's, entering fairly widespread use by the 1960's when this new edition of the dictionary was printed.

That is all that is directly known about the origins of the word. Unless a word first appeared in a novel or play, it is very difficult to track down who exactly invented a word and why. For example, William Gibson is known to have invented the word cyberspace since it first appeared in his novel Neuromancer. But it is rare to be able to track down a word so directly.

Still, even though the exact origins of the word are unknown, educated guesses can be made about what the inventors might have been thinking when they coined the term. The next recorded use of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from 1963 in Digital Computer Technol. & Design, “The power of the base appearing in an expression which is in scientific notation in effect indicates the position of the point.”

This quote is important for two reasons. First, it comes from a computer science reference, which indicates that the word was most likely first widely used by computer users. Second, it describes scientific notation not by referring to exponents, but instead talking about the location of the point. This makes it likely that mathematicians or physicists did not invent the term since they would already have a term for such a thing: exponential notation. This is bolstered by the next quotes in the OED. In 1973 the term is defined in Introduction to Computer Science, and in 1975 it appears in the Physics Bulletin: “The most important [feature of the calculators] the provision of exponential or 'scientific' notation.”

Notice how the quote from Physics Bulletin puts the word scientific in single quotes, indicating that the author is introducing this term to his or her audience, in this case, physicists. This means that physicists were not already familiar with the term, but that use of the word scientific notation has begun spreading outside of the computer science community.

So why would computer scientists feel a need to invent a new word, scientific notation, to replace exponential notation? One possible reason: they wanted to emphasize exactly how the number is being stored in the computer. There is a huge difference between storing an integer and storing a fractional number in a computer; so having a specific term helps in describing how algorithms are implemented in a particular processor. The use of 'scientific' to describe the notation probably just comes from the fact that exponential notation has always been a method for writing down the large and small numbers arising in various sciences.

Today the word scientific notation has drifted from its original meaning. The 1963 quote above makes it clear that scientific notation referred to any number of the form first number times (second number raised to third number). In modern usage, the second number is always 10 in scientific notation, and the more general term exponential notation can be used when this second number is different.

Mark Huber

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