You are on page 1of 21

home | index | units | counting | geometry | algebra | trigonometry & functions | calculus

analysis | sets & logic | number theory | recreational | misc | nomenclature & history | physics
Final Answers
© 2000-2012 Gérard P. Michon, Ph.D.
Scientific Symbols and Icons

Symbols are more than just cultural artefacts:

[They address] our intellect, emotions, and spirit.

David Fontana (The Secret Language of Symbols, 1993)
- Adobe's Symbol font: Endangered standard HTML mathematical symbols.
- The equality symbol ( = ). The "equal sign" dates back to the 16th century.
- The double-harpoon symbol denotes chemical equilibrium.
- Line components: Vinculum, bar, solidus, virgule, slash, macron, etc.
- The infinity symbol ( · ) introduced in 1655 by John Wallis (1616-1703).
- Transfinite numbers and the many faces of mathematical infinity.
- Chrevron symbols: Intersection (highest below) or union (lowest above).
- Disjoint union. Square "U" or inverted t symbol.
- Blackboard bold: Doublestruck characters denote sets of numbers.
- The integration sign ( } ) introduced by Leibniz at the dawn of Calculus.
- The end-of-proof box (or tombstone) is called a halmos symbol (QED).
- Two "del" symbols: c for partial derivatives, and V for Hamilton's nabla.
- The rod of Asclepius: Medicine and the 13th zodiacal constellation.
- The Caduceus: Scepter of Hermes, symbol of commerce (not medicine).
- Tetractys: Mystical Pythagorean symbol, "source of everflowing Nature".
- The Borromean Rings: Three interwoven rings which are pairwise
- The Tai-Chi Mandala: The taiji (Yin-Yang) symbol was Bohr's coat-of-
- Dangerous-bend symbol: Introduced by Bourbaki, popularized by Knuth.

Related articles on this site:
- Style and Usage.
- Free monoid: Strings of characters.
- Scientific notation. Scientific calculators.
- Chemical elements. The periodic table.
- t ("Pi"): Circumference to diameter ratio.
- Names of operands in common operations.
- The h-bar symbol ( ). Quantum of spin.
- Legendre symbol and its generalizations.
- The diamond on US tape measures.
- Roman numerals and Roman numeration system(s). Etruscan numerals.
- Notation for sesterce: HS or IIS (2½ asses, "unus et unus et semis").
- Alchemical Glyphs: Gold, acidum salis, aqua fortis, aqua regia, etc.
- Escutcheons of Science (Armorial): Coats-of-arms of famous scientists.
- Tree of Knowledge (or Conscience): An overloaded heraldic design.
Related Links (Outside this Site)
Scientific Symbol Resources at, by George F. Sutton (b. 1956).
Graphic Symbol Index at
Mathematical Symbols by Robin Whitty (Theorem of the Day).
History of Mathematical Symbols by Douglas Weaver and Anthony D. Smith
Flags with Mathematical Symbols | Table of Mathematical Symbols
Symbols in the Mathematical Association's coat of arms.
Sixty Symbols: Videos about the symbols of physics and astronomy.
Greek letters used in mathematics, science, and engineering (Wikipedia)

Mathematical Symbols and Scientific Icons

(2011-08-25) The Symbol Font of Yesteryear's Web (HTML 4.0)
Once the proper way to display most mathematical symbols on the Web.
The World Wide Web was originally developed at CERN to facilitate
International scientific communications. In the early days, only the 7-bit
characters in the ASCII set were unambiguously understood. (EBCDIC has
always been limited to IBM's mainframe computers). Only 95 codes in the
ASCII set correspond to ordinary printable characters (the most common
of which is the blank space). The remaining 33 other codes in the 128-
character ASCII set are assigned to so-called control characters meant to
control either the flow of information or the output device (the most
common of those are the end-of-line indicators; carriage-return and/or line-


As of June 2011, IT professionals in at least one big organisation are testing
critical web pages on no fewer than 42 slightly different delivery
Big Browser

There is no excuse for not supporting the legacy Symbol font in modern
browsers. Doing so does not interfere at all with proper UNICODE support,
for example. I argue that browsers that do not support legacy standards to
insure the readibility of yesteryear's valuable information simply do not
deserve our trust in the long run. On that basis alone, I
recommend Internet Explorer and Google Chrome and must. regretfully,
advise against the latest versions of Opera, Safari and Firefox (not a single
Web author who has ever used the Symbol has ever meant it to be
rendered the way those browsers do, by mistakingly using a "standard"
character encoding for it).
Thanks to Philippe Verdy for background information (private messages).
W3C recommendations for mathematical symbols in HTML 4.0 (December 1997)
Symbol font (Wikipedia) | ASPpdef (Special characters tables)
Special <Font Face="Symbol"> Characters by Ted M. Montgomery (1998-2011)
Using Symbol font to display Greek letters with Firefox or Netscape 6+ (The Modern Jesus Army)
Enabling Symbol font for Mozilla on Windows TeX to HTML Translator (2005)
Getting Symbol Font to Display in Firefox by Dave (2006)
Symbol font and nonstandard symbolic typefaces by Ian C. G. Bell (1998-2006)
Symbol font by David W. Knight, G3YNH (Nov. 2009, Sept. 2011)

Symbol font - Unicode alternatives for Greek and special characters in HTML by Alan Wood (1997-2010)
Google I/O 2011: HTML5 & What's Next (2011 Video).

Emily Guerin (2004-06-18; e-mail) The Equal Sign
Who was the first person to use the modern equal sign?
A very elongated form of the modern equality symbol (=) was
introduced in print in The Whetstone of Witte (1557) by Robert Recorde
(1510-1558) the man who first introduced algebra into England. He
justified the new symbol by stating that no two things can be more equal
than a pair of parallel lines.
We've been told that a manuscript from the University of Bologna, dated
between 1550 and 1568, features the same notation for equality, apparently
independently of the work of Robert Recorde (and possibly slightly earlier).
William Oughtred (1574-1660) was instrumental in the subsequent
popularization of the equal sign, which appears next in 1618, in the
appendix [attributed to him] of the English translation by Edward Wright
of John Napier's Descriptio (where early logarithms were first described in
1614). The same mathematical glyph is then seen again, and perhaps more
importantly, in Oughtred's masterpiece Clavis Mathematicae (1631) in
which other scientific symbols are experimented with, which are still with
us today (including × for multiplication).
Instead of the now familiar equal sign, many mathematicians used words or
abbreviations (including "ae" for the Latin aequalis) well into the 18th
century. Thomas Harriot (1560-1621) was using a different symbol (
), while some others used a pair of vertical lines ( || ) instead.
Earliest Uses of Symbols of Relation (Jeff Miller)

(2010-05-05) Chemical reaction & chemical equilibrium
Equilibrium can be denoted by a right over left double-harpoon.
Some chemical reactions proceed until one of the reactant has virtually
disappeared. Ihis is denoted by a simple rightward-arrow symbol:
2 H
+ O
÷ 2 H
However, as the rate of a chemical reaction depends on the concentration
of the reactants, a dynamic equiibrium is often reached whereby the
concentrations of all the compounds involved are such that both directions
of the chemical reaction proceeed at equal rates. Several symbols have
been used to indicate this. The most symmetrical such symbol is the
double-headed arrow sign ( ÷ )
However, the preferred scientific symbol for chemical equilibrium consists
of two superposed arrows (the rightward arrow is always above the
leftward one) This has evolved graphically into the following stylish sign,
affectionately known as the double-harpoon symbol:

This is the so-called right-left version of the symbol (UNICODE:
21CC). In chemistry, it's considered bad form to use its left-right mirror
An ancient symbol meant to evoke dynamic equilibrium is
the caduceus (symbol of trade and alchemy, commonly used by
pharmacists and often wrongly associated with medicine).

(Monica of Glassboro, NJ. 2001-02-08)
What's the correct terminology for the line between
the numerator and denominator of a fraction?
When the numerator is written directly above the denominator,
the horizontal bar between them is best called a vinculum.
The overbar part of a square-root sign or a guzinta is also called a
vinculum, so is the full weight superbar or overscore used to tie several
symbols together (in particular, groups of letters with a numerical meaning
in Greek or Latin, where such explicit groupings may also imply
multiplication by 1000). The thinner diacritical mark placed over a single
character is called a macron. (e.g., macrons are used over long vowels in
some modern Latin transcriptions).
When the numerator and denominator appear at the same level,
separated by a slanted line (e.g., "1/2") such a line is best called a
solidus. It's also called slash or stroke [British] and, more formally,
virgule or oblique [British]. In the German language, this symbol was the
predecessor of the modern comma punctuation symbol (virgule is French
for comma).
The noun solidus originates from the Roman gold coin of the same name
(the ancestor of the shilling, of the French sol or sou, etc.). The sign was
originally a monetary symbol, which was still used for the British shilling
in 1971 (when British money was decimalized). See discussion
The related symbol "÷" is called an obelus. It was introduced as a
division symbol in 1659 by the Swiss mathematician Johann Rahn
(1622–1676) who is also credited for the "therefore" symbol (). Today,
the obelus symbol is rarely used to separate both parts of a ratio, but it
remains very familiar as the icon identifying the division key on
On 2009-08-07, John Harmer wrote: [edited summary]
I was at Uni in 1971 and can't remember ever using "/" instead of "s" for
shillings. Before another meaning came along, the
acronym Lsd (or £sd ) referred to the old British coinage
system based on the ancient Roman currency names (libra, solidus,
denarius) as opposed to the new decimal " £p " system.

Although one pound and two shillings could, indeed, have been
denoted £1/2 I remember thinking of the solidus symbol only as
a separator : Two-and-sixpence would have been 2/6d. One pound, two
shillings and sixpence would have been £1/2/6d. In shops, a price of one
pound was often marked 1 / - / -
The symbol was pronounced stroke (oblique was posh).
Cheers, John Harmer
Chippenham, UK
Both meanings of the solidus sign (i.e., currency prefix and/or
separator) are compatible and have coexisted peacefully. Arguably, the
definition presented by John Harmer became dominant with the passage
of time.

(2003-08-08) ·
The infinity symbol introduced by John Wallis in 1655.
This sign was first given its current mathematical meaning in "Arithmetica
Infinitorum" (1655) by the British mathematician John Wallis (1616-1703).
+· (resp. ÷·) is the mathematical symbol used to denote the "limit" of a
real quantity that eventually remains above (resp. below) any preset bound.
Incidentally, he above illustrates the proper mathematical usage of "resp."
(which is best construed as a mathematical symbol, as discussed
elsewhere on this site). This remark was prompted by an entry (2006-11-
18) in the blog of a professional translator (Margaret Marks) who used
this very prose as an example of a usage she was discovering with the
help of her readers...
In canonical maps between the complex plane and a sphere minus a point,
the unsigned symbol (·) corresponds to the "missing point" of the
sphere, but · is not a proper complex number... It's just a convenient
way to denote the fictitious "infinite circle" at the horizon of the complex
The symbol itself is properly called a lemniscus, a latin
noun which means "pendant ribbon" and was
first used in 1694 by Jacob Bernoulli (1654-
1705) to describe a planar curve now
called Lemniscate of Bernoulli.
The design appeared in Western iconography before modern
times. It's found on the cross of Saint Boniface (bishop and
martyr, English apostle of Germany, né Winfrid c.675-755).
The infinity snake, the ouroboros symbol (also, uroboros
or uroborus) is a serpent or a dragon biting its own
tail (ouµo|óµoç means "tail swallower"). The graphic
appeared in Egypt as early as 1600 BC, and independently
in Mesoamerica (see a Mayan version at left). It has been
associated with the entire Zodiac and the eternity of
time. It's the symbol of the perpetual cyclic renewal of
life. It has been found in Tibetan rock carvings and
elsewhere depicted in the shape of a lemniscate, although
a plain circle is more common (the circle symbolizes
infinity in Zen Buddhism).
The Lemniscate or Infinity Symbol | Black Arts Diary

(2003-11-10) Symbols of Infinite Numbers
e and ×o, the other infinity symbols.
As discussed above, the infinity symbol of Wallis (·) is
not a number...
However, there are two different definitions that make good mathematical
sense of actual infinite numbers. Both of those were first investigated by
Georg Cantor (1845-1918):
Two sets are said to have the same cardinal number of elements if they can
be put in one-to-one correspondence with each other. For finite sets, the
natural integers (0,1,2,3,4 ...) are adequate cardinal numbers, but transfinite
cardinals are needed for infinite sets. The infinity
symbol ×o (pronounced "aleph zero", "aleph null", or "aleph nought") was
defined by Cantor to denote the smallest of these (the cardinal of the set of
the integers themselves).
Cantor knew that more than one transfinite cardinal was needed because his
own diagonal argument proves that reals and integers have different
cardinalities. (Actually, because the powerset of a set is always strictly
larger than itself, there are infinitely many different types of infinities,
each associated with a different transfinite cardinal number.)
The second kind of infinite numbers introduced by Cantor are called
transfinite ordinals. Observe that a natural integer may be represented by
the set of all nonnegative integers before it, starting with the empty set ( C )
for 0 (zero) because there are no nonnegative integers before it. So, 1
corresponds to the set {0}, 2 is {0,1}, 3 is {0,1,2}, etc. For the ordinal
corresponding to the set of all the nonnegative integers {0,1,2,3...} the
infinity symbol e was introduced.
Cantor did not stop there, since {0,1,2,3...e} corresponds to another
transfinite ordinal, which is best "called" e+1. {0,1,2,3...e,e+1} is e+2,
etc. Thus, e is much more like an ordinary number than ×o. In fact, within
the context of surreal numbers described by John H. Conway around 1972,
most of the usual rules of arithmetic apply to expressions involving e
(whereas Cantor's scheme for adding transfinite ordinals is not even
commutative). Note that 1/e is another nonzero surreal number, an
infinitesimal one. By contrast, adding one element to an infinity of ×o
elements still yields just ×o elements, and 1/×o is meaningless.
Infinite Ordinals and Transfinite Cardinals | The Surreal Numbers of John H. Conway

(2005-04-10) Cap: · Cup: Wedge: . Vee: v
Intersection (greatest below) & Union (lowest above).
The chevron (wedge) and inverted chevron (vee) are the
generic symbols used to denote the basic binary operators induced by a
partial ordering on a lattice. Those special characters have the following
- The chevron symbol (wedge) denotes the highest element "less"
than (or equal to) both operands. a.b = inf(a,b) is called
the greatest lower bound, the infimum or meet of a and b. The
operation is well-defined only in what's called a meet semilattice, a
partially ordered set where two elements always have at least one
lower bound (i.e., an element which is less than or equal to both).

- The inverted chevron symbol (vee) denotes the lowest element
"greater" than (or equal to) both operands. avb = sup(a,b) is
called the least upper bound, the supremum or join of a and
b. The operation is well-defined only in what's called a join
semilattice, a partially ordered set where two elements always have
at least one upper bound (i.e., an element which is greater than or
equal to both).
A set endowed with a partial ordering relation which makes it both a
meet-semilattice and a join-semilattice is called a lattice (French: treillis).
In the special case of a total ordering (like the ordering of real
numbers) two elements can always be compared (if they're not equal, one
is larger and one is smaller) so either operation will always yield one of the
two operands:
p.q = min(p,q) e {p,q}
pvq = max(p,q) e {p,q}
For example, a stochastic process X
stopped at time T is equal to X

By contrast, consider the relation among positive integers (usually denoted
by a vertical bar) which we may call "divides" or "is a divisor of". It's
indeed an ordering relation (because it's reflexive, antisymmetric and
transitive) but it's only a partial ordering relation (for example, 2 and 3
can't be "compared" to each other, as neither divides the other). In that
context, p.q is the greatest common divisor (GCD) of p and q, more
rarely called their highest common factor (HCF). Conversely, pvq is
their lowest common multiple (LCM).
p.q = gcd(p,q) [ = (p,q) ] (*)
pvq = lcm(p,q)
(*) We do not recommend the widespread but dubious
notation (p,q) for the GCD of p and q. It's unfortunately dominant in
English texts.
In the context of Number Theory, the above use of the "wedge" and "vee"
mathematical symbols needs little or no introduction, except to avoid
confusion with the meaning they have in predicate calculus (the chevron
symbol stands for "logical and", whereas the inverted chevron is "logical
or", also called "and/or").
In Set Theory, the fundamental ordering relation among sets may be called
"is included in" (c or, more precisely, _). In this case, and in this case
only, the corresponding symbols for the related binary operators assume
rounded shapes and cute names: cap (·) and cup (). A·B and AB are
respectively called the intersection and the union of the sets A and B.
The intersection A·B is the set of all elements that belong to both A and
B. The union AB is the set of all elements that belong to A and/or B
("and/or" means "either or both"; it is the explicitly inclusive version of the
more ambiguous "or" conjunction, which normally does mean "and/or" in
any mathematical context).

The chevron symbol is also used as a sign denoting the exterior
product (the wedge product).
In an international context, the same mathematical symbol may be found to
denote the vectorial cross product as well...

(2007-11-12) Disjoint Union = Discriminated Union
Union of distinct copies of sets in an indexed family.
The concept of disjoint union coincides with the
ordinary union for sets that are pairwise disjoint. In modern usage, the
term disjoint union is almost always used to denote the ordinary union of
sets that are pairwise disjoint.
In that particular case it coincides with the concept of what's best called
a discriminated union, as discussed below. However, that notion is all but
obsolete; you can live a happy mathematical life without it.
Formally, the discriminated union of an indexed family of sets A

{ (x,i) | x e A
ieI ieI
However, such an indexed family is often treated as a mere collection of
sets. The existence of an indexation is essential in the above formulation,
but the usual abuse of notation is to omit the index itself, which is
considered mute. This makes it possible to use simple notations
like A+B or A B for the disjoint union of two sets A and B. The
squared "U" symbol ( ) is the preferred (because the plus sign is so
overloaded). In handwriting and in print, that "squared U" is best drawn as
an "inverted pi", to avoid any possible confusion with the "rounded U"
symbol (cup) denoting an ordinary union of sets.
A symbol is said to be overloaded if its meaning depends on the
context. Mathematical symbols are very often overloaded. The
overloading of a symbol usually implies the overloading of related
symbols. For example, the overloading of the addition sign (+) implies
an overloading of the summation sign (E) and vice-versa.
Additive notations are [somewhat] popular for discriminated
unions because the cardinal of a discriminated union is always the sum of
the cardinals of its components. Denoting |E| the cardinal of the set E :
| ¿ A | = ¿ | A |

(2005-09-26) "Blackboard Bold" or Doublestruck Symbols
Letters enhanced with double lines are symbols for sets of numbers.
Such symbols are attributed to Nicolas Bourbaki, although they don't
appear in the printed work of Bourbaki... Some Bourbakists like Jean-
Pierre Serre advise against them, except in handwriting (including
traditional blackboard use).
Those symbols are also called "doublestruck" because mechanical
typewriters could be coaxed into producing them by striking a capital letter
twice (pushing the carriage out of alignment the second time).
One advantage of using the doublestruck symbols, even in
print (against the advice of Jean-Pierre Serre) is that they do not suffer
from any overloading. This makes them usable without the need for
building up a context.
Some Doublestruck Symbols and their Meanings
Symbol Bold Etymology Symbol's Meaning

P Prime Numbers 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, ...
Finite Field Galois field of q = p
elements (p prime)

N Natural Numbers
Nonnegative Integers [additive monoid]
0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, ...

Z Zahl [German]
Ring of Signed Integers (countable)
... -4, -3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5...
/ n Z/nZ Quotient Ring Ring of Integers modulo n (finite)
Zahl, radix p Ring of p-adic Integers (uncountable)

Q Quotient Field of Rational Numbers (countable)
Quotient, radix p Field of p-adic Numbers (uncountable)

R Real Field of Real Numbers (uncountable)

C Complex Field of Complex Numbers

H Hamilton Skew Field of Quaternions

O Octonions Alternative Division Algebra
The group formed by the invertible elements of
a multiplicative monoid M is denoted M*. That's compatible with the
common usage of starring the symbol of a set of numbers to denote
the nonzero numbers in it (the two definitions are equivalent for *,
*, * and *). In particular:
= { 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 ... } (Natural numbers, A001477)
* = { 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 ... } (Counting numbers, A000027)
Unfortunately, this international usage is sometimes butchered in the US,
where the locution "natural numbers" may mean positive integers.
* is undefined (arguably, that symbol might denote the odd primes ).

(2003-08-03) }
The integration sign of Leibniz (29 October 1675).

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) viewed integration as a
generalized summation, and he was partial to the name "calculus
summatorius" for what we now call [integral] calculus. He eventually
settled on the familiar elongated "s" for the sign of integration, after
discussing the matter with Jacob Bernoulli (1654-1705) who favored the
name "calculus integralis" and the symbol I for integrals.
Eventually, what prevailed was the symbol of Leibniz, with the name
advocated by Bernoulli...
BBC, 1986 : The Birth Of Calculus [ Jan Hudde was quoted by both Newton and Leibniz ]

(2002-07-05) Q.E.D. [ QED = Quod Erat Demonstrandum ]
What's the name of the end-of-proof box, in a mathematical context?
Mathematicians call it a halmos symbol, after Paul R. Halmos (1916-
2006). Typographers call it a tombstone, which is the name of the symbol
in any non-scientific context.
Paul Halmos also invented the "iff" abbreviation for "if and only if".
Before Halmos had the idea to use the symbol in a mathematical context, it
was widely used to mark the end of an article in popular magazines (it still
is). Such a tombstone is especially useful for an article which spans a
number of columns on several pages, because the end of the article may not
otherwise be so obvious... Some publications use a small stylized logo in
lieu of a plain tombstone symbol.
See Math Words... Here's a halmos symbol, at the end of this last line!
To Euclid and the ancient Greeks, the end of a demonstration was indicated by the
acronym oco (transliterated "Oper Edei Deixai"). See Robin Whitty's Theorem #149.

Jacob Krauze (2003-04-20; e-mail) Del & Nabla
As a math major, I had been taught that the symbol c
(used for partial derivatives) was pronounced "dee", but
a chemistry professor told me it was actually pronounced
"del". Which is it? I thought "del" was reserved for
[Hamilton's nabla operator] V = < c/cx, c/cy, c/cz >
"Del" is a correct name for both c and V. Some authors present these two

Log x =




signs as the lowercase and uppercase versions of the same mathematical
symbol (the terms "small del" and "big del" [sic!] are rarely used, if ever).
Physicists and others often pronounce cy/cx "del y by del x". A better way
to read this aloud in front of a classroom is either "partial of y with respect
to x" or "partial of y along x" (especially when x is a space or spacetime
In an international scientific context, the confusion between c and V is
best avoided by calling V "nabla del", or simply nabla. Some
practitioners also read it "grad" (since nabla can be construed as denoting
a generalized gradient ).
William Robertson Smith (1846-1894) coined the name "nabla" for the V
mathematical symbol, whose shape is reminiscent of a Hebrew harp by
the same name (also spelled "nebel"). The term was first adopted by
Peter Guthrie Tait (1831-1901) by Hamilton and also by
Heaviside. Maxwell apparently never used the name in a scientific
The question is moot for many mathematicians, who routinely read
a c symbol like a "d" (mentally or aloud). I'm guilty of this myself, but
don't tell anybody!
When it's necessary to lift all ambiguities without sounding overly pedantic,
"c" is also routinely called "curly d", "rounded d" or "curved d". The sign
corresponds to the cursive "dey" of the Cyrillic alphabet and is sometimes
also known as Jacobi's delta, because Carl Gustav Jacobi(1804-1851) is
credited with the popularization of the modern
mathematical meaning of this special character (starting in
1841, with the introduction of Jacobians in the epoch-
making paper entitled "De determinantibus
functionalibus"). Historically, this lowercase
mathematical symbol was first used by Condorcet in 1770, and by
Legendre around 1786.

Geetar (2007-07-18) Rod of Asclepius (Staff of Aesculapius)
What's the symbol for the 13th zodiacal constellation, Ophiuchus?
Ophiuchus is the name (abbreviated Oph) of a constellation also
known as Serpentarius (French: Serpentaire). The serpent bearer.

This "snake handler" is actually the
demigod Asclepios/Aesculapius, the
Greek/Roman god of medicine, a son
of Apollo who was taught the healing
arts by the centaur Chiron. Asclepius
served aboard Argo as ship's
doctor of Jason (in the quest for
the Golden Fleece) and became so
good at healing that he could bring
people back from the dead. This
made the underworld ruler (Hades)
complain to Zeus, who struck
Asclepius with a bolt of lightning but
decided to honor him with a place in
the sky, as Ophiuchus. The Greeks
identified Asclepius with the deified
doctor Imhotep (27th century BC).
The Rod of Asclepius, symbol of medicine, is a single snake entwined
around a stick. Originally, the symbol may have depicted the treatment
of dracunculiasis (very common in the Ancient World) in which the long
parasitic worm was traditionally extracted through the patient's skin by
wrapping it around a stick over a period of days or weeks (because a faster
procedure might break the worm).
Any symbol involving a snake would seem natural for medicine: The
snake is a symbol of renewed life out of old shedded skin, not to mention
the perpetual renewal of life evoked by the ouroboros symbol (a snake
feeding on its own tail). A snake around a walking stick is also an ancient
symbol of supernatural powers which can triumph over death, like
medicine can (biblically, the symbol of Moses' divine mission was his
ability to change his walking stick into a snake).
The large Ophiuchus constellation is one of the 88 modern
constellations. It was also one of the 48 traditional constellations listed by
Ptolemy. In both systems, it's one of only 13 zodiacal constellations. By
definition, a zodiacal constellation is a constellation which is crossed by the
ecliptic (the path traced by the Sun on the celestial sphere, which is so
named because that's where solar eclipses occur).
As a path charted against the background of fixed stars, the ecliptic is a
remarkably stable line (since it's tied to the orbital motion of the Earth, not
its wobbling spin). It does not vary with the relatively rapid precession of
equinoxes (whose period is roughly 25772 years). What does vary is the
location on the ecliptic of the so-called "gamma point" (the position of the
Sun at the vernal equinox).
Ophiuchus is the only zodiacal constellation which has not given its name
to one of the 12 signs of the zodiac associated with the 12 traditional equal
subdivisions of the solar year, which form the calendar used by
astrologers. However, some modern astrologers are advocating a reformed
system with uneven zodiacal signs, where Ophiuchus has found its place...
Astrological belief systems are not proper subjects for scientific
investigation. Nevertheless, we must point out that it's a plain error to
associate Ophiuchus with the caduceus symbol (two snakes around a
winged staff) since that symbol of Hermes (messenger of the gods) is
associated with commerce, not medicine.
The proper symbol for Ophiuchus is indeed the Rod of Asclepius or Staff
of Asclepius (one snake around a plain stick) the correct symbol of
the medical profession, which is mythologically tied to the Ophiuchus
constellation. Period.
In 1910, the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association
issued a resolution stating that "the true ancestral symbol of healing art is
the knotty pine and the [single] serpent of Aesculapius".
Rod_of_Asclepius | Modernized Zodiac | Astrological Attributes of Ophiuchus by Betty Rhodes

(2007-11-25) The Caduceus (Scepter of Hermes)
Image of dynamic equilibrium. Symbol of commerce.
Several explanations exist for this ancient overloaded
In Greek mythology, the kerykeion symbol (latin:
Caduceus) which was ultimately inherited by Hermes (called Mercury by
the Romans) is often said to have originated with the blind seer Tiresias,
the prophet who had experienced both sexes.
Tiresias was a son of Zeus and the nymph Calypso (daughter of the titan
Atlas). After he had separated two copulating serpents with a stick,
Tiresias was changed into a woman for 7 years by Hera, experiencing
marriage and childbirth before returning to his original male form. This
experience of both sexes uniquely qualified him to settle a dispute
between Zeus (Jupiter) and his wife Hera (Juno). He sided with Zeus by
stating that women experience ten times more sexual pleasure than
men. This displeased Hera who made him blind (in another version, it's
Athena who blinded him, because he had surprised her bathing in the
nude). Zeus tried to make up for this by giving Tiresias foresight and
allowing him to live 7 lives.
The caduceus symbol evokes a dynamic equilibrium emerging from a
confrontation of opposing principles (male and female). As an alleged
symbol of peace, the kerykeion represents a balance of powers rather than
a lack of tensions.
The oldest depiction of two snakes entwined around an axial rod is in the
Louvre museum. It appears on a steatite vase carved for Gudea of
Lagash (who ruled from around 2144 to 2124 BC) and dedicated to the
Mesopotamian underworld deity Nin-giz-zida who is so represented. The
name means "Lord of the Good Tree" in Sumerian, which is reminiscent of
Zoroastrian righteousness (Good and Evil) and of the biblical Tree of
Knowledge of Good and Evil, also featuring a serpent...

Curiously, the gender of Nin-giz-zida seems as ambiguous as the sexual
identity of Tiresias. Coincidentally or not, Nin-giz-zida is associated with
the large vonstellation Hydra whose name happens to
evoke Hydrargyrum, the latin name of the metal mercury (symbol
Hg). The Hydra constellation is either associated to the Hydra of
Lerna (the multi-headed reptilian monster defeated by Heracles) or,
interestingly, to the serpent cast into the heavens by Apollo (who ended
up giving the caduceus emblem to his brother Hermes/Mercury).
The two facing serpents are also said to symbolize water and fire, two
opposing elements entwined around the axis of the Earth. The wings evoke
the spiritual or spatial dimension of the fourth element : sky, wind or air.
Also, the copulating serpents have been construed as a fertility symbol
involving two complementary forces revolving around a common
center. This makes the caduceus a western counterpart of the oriental taiji.
Hermes was the god of alchemists, who were fascinated by the
element mercury and held as fundamental the unification of opposites. By
extension, the caduceus became associated with chemistry and pharmacy.
It's a common mistake, dating back to the 16th century, to associate the
Caduceus with medicine. The misguided heraldic use of the symbol by
military medicine started in the 19th century and culminated with the
adoption of the symbol by the Medical Department of the US Army, in
1902. It's still the official emblem of the US Navy Hospital Corps. Yet, the
correct symbol for medicine is definitely the Staff of Asclepius (no wings
and a single serpent) so recognized as a "true ancestral symbol" by the
American Medical Association (AMA) in 1910.
The caduceus is also associated with communication, eloquence, trade
and commerce, the traditional attributions of Hermes, messenger for the
gods and protector of all merchants, thieves, journalists, tricksters and...

(2008-05-03) The Pythagorean Tetractys
Symbol of quantized Pythagorean harmony.
In their oath, Pythagoreans called Pythagoras:
Him who brought us the tetractys,
the Source of everflowing Nature.
The Pythagorean musical system was based on the harmony of the simple
ratios 4:3, 3:2 and 2:1. Many detailed explanations have been devised
about the many meanings of the tetractys symbol. Most such details are
dubious. The tetractys is essentially a symbol for the counting numbers
themselves (1, 2, 3, 4...). This sign evokes the Pythagorean belief system
which puts small whole numbers at the core of every fundamental
Tetractys Symbol (Wikipedia) | The Tetraktys Symbol by Robert Apatow
Pythagorean Harmony in "Week 266" by John Baez.

(2003-06-10) Borromean Symbol. Borromean Links.
What are Borromean rings?
These are 3 interwoven rings which are pairwise
separated (see picture). Interestingly, it can be shown
that such rings cannot all be perfect circles (you'd have
to bend or stretch at least one of them) and the converse
seems to be true: three simple unknotted closed curves may always be
placed in a Borromean configuration unless they are all circles [no other
counterexamples are known].
The design was once the symbol of the alliance between the Visconti,
Sforza and Borromeo families. It's been named after the Borromeo family
who has perused the three-ring symbol, with several other interlacing
patterns! The three rings are found among the many symbols featured on
the Borromeo coat of arms (they are not nearly as prominent
as one would expect, you may need a closer look).
The Borromean interlacing is also featured in other symbols
which do not involve rings. One example, pictured at left, is
[one of the two versions of] the so-called Odin's triangle.
In a recent issue of the journal Science (May 28, 2004) a group of
chemists at UCLA reported the synthesis of a molecule with the Borromean
At a more fundamental level, the logic of the Borromean symbol applies to
a type of quantum entanglement first conjectured by Vitaly Efimov in
1970, where ternary stability may exist in spite of pairwise
repulsion. Such an Efimov state was first observed (for three cesium
atoms confined below 0.000000001 K) by the group of Rudolf Grimm at
the University of Innsbruck (Austria) in collaboration with Cheng
Chin of Chicago (Nature, March 16, 2006).
In North America, the pattern is sometimes called a ballantine because of
the 3-ring logo (Purity, Body, Flavor) of Ballantine's Ale which was
popular in the WWII era. The term Ballantine rings is used by Louis H.
Kauffman in his book Formal Knot Theory (Princeton University Press,
Borromean rings are but the simplest example of Brunnian links.
Borromean and Brunnian and Brunnian Rings (Belgrade, 2010). Animation by Dusan Zivaljevic ("duleziv").

(2003-06-23) The tai-chi mandala: Taiji or Yin-Yang symbol.
Niels Bohr's coat-of-arms (Argent, a taiji Gules and
Sable) illustrates his motto: Contraria sunt complementa.
The Chinese Taiji symbol (Tai-Chi, or taijitu) predates the Song
dynasty (960-1279). Known in the West as the Yin-Yang symbol,
this sign appears in the ancient I Ching (or YiJing, the "Book of
Changes"). It is meant to depict the two traditional types of complementary
principles from which all things are supposed to come from, Yin
and Yang, whirling within an eternally turning circle representing
the primordial void (the Tao). The Confucian Tai-Chi symbol
represents actual plenitude, whereas the Taoist Wu-Chi symbol (an
empty circle) symbolizes undifferentiated emptiness, but also the infinite
potential of the primordial Tao...
Both Yin and Yang are divided into greater and
lesser phases (or elements). A fifth central phase
(earth) represents perfect transformation equilibrium.
To a Western scientific mind, this traditional Chinese
classification may seem entirely arbitrary, especially
the more recent "scientific" extensions to physics and
chemistry highlighted in the following table:

Yin Yang
Etymology Dark Side (French: ubac) Bright Side (French: adret)
North of a mountain
South of a river
South of a mountain
North of a river
Gender Female, Feminine Male, Masculine
Celestial Moon, Planet, Night Sun, Star, Day
Ancient Symbol White Tiger Green Dragon
Colors Violet, Indigo, Blue Red, Orange, Yellow
Greater Phase
West, Metal and Autumn
Potential Structure
East, Wood and Spring
Potential Action
Transition, Young Weak Nuclear Force Gravity
Lesser Phase
Stability, Old
North, Water and Winter
Actual Structure
South, Fire and Summer
Actual Action
Strong Nuclear Force Electromagnetism
Dark, Cold, Wet
Solid, Heavy, Slow
Curling, Deep
Soft voice, Sad
Yielding, Soft, Relaxed
Stillness, Passivity
Coming, Inward, Pull
Receive, Grasp, Listen
Descending, Low, Bottom
Contracting, Preserving
Small, Interior, Bone
Mental, Subtle
Bright, Hot, Dry
Gas, Light, Fast
Stretching, Shallow
Loud voice, Happy
Resistant, Hard, Tense
Motion, Activity
Going, Outward, Push
Transmit, Release, Talk
Ascending, High, Top
Expanding, Consuming
Large, Exterior, Skin
Physical, Obvious
Sweet, Bitter, Mild
Vegetable, Root
Red meat
Salty, Sour, Hot
Fruit, Leaf
Space, Open angle
Finite, Discontinuous
Time, Closed circle
Infinite, Continuous
Logic Cause Effect
Dexter, Negative, Loss
Front, Counterclockwise
Sinister, Positive, Gain
Back, Clockwise
Binary Arithmetic 0, Zero, Even, No 1, One, Odd, Yes
Chemistry Acidic, Cation, Oxidant Alkaline, Anion, Reductant
Genetic Code
Pyrimidines :
Cytosine (young)
Thymine or Uracil (old)
Purines :
Guanine (young)
Adenine (old)
Particle Physics Matter, Particle, Fermion Energy, Force, Boson
Extensive quantities
Volume, Entropy
Magnetic induction
Intensive quantities
Pressure, Temperature
Electric field

Yin Yang
The traditional Chinese taiji symbol became a scientific icon when Niels
Bohr made it his coat-of-arms in 1947 (with the motto: contraria sunt
complementa) but the symbol was never meant to convey any precise
scientific meaning...
The oldest known Tai-Chi symbol was carved in
the stone of a Korean Buddhist temple in
AD 682. A stylized version of the Ying-Yang
symbol (Eum-Yang to Koreans) appears on the
modern [South] Korean Flag (T'aeGuk-Ki) which
was first used in 1882, by the diplomat Young-
Hyo Park on a mission to Japan. The flag was
banned during the Japanese occupation of Korea,
from 1910 to 1945.
The decorative use of similar graphics is
found much earlier, on the shields of several
Roman military units recorded in the Notitia
Dignitatum (c. AD 420). This includes, most
strikingly, the pattern shown at right, which
was sported by an infantry unit
called armigeri defensores seniores (the
shield-bearing veteran defenders).

(2012-08-11) Dangerous Bend Symbol (Bourbaki & Knuth)
Announces a delicate point, possibly difficult or counterintuitive.
Certains passages sont destinés à prémunir le lecteur
contre des erreurs graves, où il risquerait de tomber;
ces passages sont signalés en marge par le signe
☡ ("

tournant dangereux ").

Nicolas Bourbaki (1935 - ·)

That warning sign may also indicate a hazardous discussion of
minute details, to skip on first reading.

A double sign flags far out ideas. (Knuth)

Three signs would warn against delusional
stuff that must be exposed as crackpottery.

The design of the caution sign introduced by
Bourbaki was inspired by the French
roadsigns (at right) which were installed before
Now, those roadsigns have been replaced by
the international roadsigns below, which communicate much better to the
driver which way the upcoming "dangerous bend" turns! Indeed.

International roadsigns of triangular shape signal a danger. Donald
Knuth decided that a diamond shape would be more appropriate
for the mere mathematical caution sign he would use in his own
Unlike the unframed rendition of the UNICODE caution
sign (U+2621) which looks like a capital Z to the uninitiated,
D.E. Knuth's glyph (at right) really suggests a roadsign!
Knuth has collected many photos of diamond-shaped roadsigns for fun!
Bourbaki "dangerous bend" symbol
The "Dangerous Bend" Sign of Donald Knuth by Richard J. Kinch (January 2005). updated 2012-10-09 19:02