The Alexandrian mathematicians Hero of Alexandria and Diophantus continued the traditions of Egypt and Babylon, but Diophantus's book Arithmetica is on a much higher level and gives many surprising solutions to difficult indeterminate equations. This ancient knowledge of solutions of equations in turn found a home early in the Islamic world, where it was known as the "science of restoration and balancing." (The Arabic word for restoration, al-jabru,is the root of the word algebra.) In the 9th century, the Arab mathematician al-Khwarizmi wrote one of the first Arabic algebras, a systematic exposé of the basic theory of equations, with both examples and proofs. By the end of the 9th century, the Egyptian mathematician Abu Kamil had stated and proved the basic laws and identities of algebra and solved such complicated problems as finding x, y, and z such that x + y + z = 10, x2 + y2 = z2, and xz = y2.

Ancient civilizations wrote out algebraic expressions using only occasional abbreviations, but by medieval times Islamic mathematicians were able to talk about arbitrarily high powers of the unknown x, and work out the basic algebra of polynomials (without yet using modern symbolism). This included the ability to multiply, divide, and find square roots of polynomials as well as a knowledge of the binomial theorem. The Persian mathematician, astronomer, and poet Omar Khayyam showed how to express roots of cubic equations by line segments obtained by...