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Was Geometry Invented by Bureaucrats and Not a Greek Genius?

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You’d be hard pressed to escape school without having to learn some kind of geometry. In the history of ideas and popular imagination geometry is associated with the ancient Greeks. Long after calculus and algebra have fled the mental nest, the Pythagorean theorem continues to linger. But what if it wasn’t illustrious Greek philosophers but Babylonian bureaucrats who first invented geometry? A new paper, published this month and making waves in the international press, argues not only that a 3,800-year-old clay tablet is familiar with Pythagorean principles, but that it was used in practical settings in the ancient world.

The tablet in question is an unassuming, partly broken clay tablet named Plimpton 322 that is roughly the size of an iPhone. It was donated to Columbia University by educational publisher George Arthur Plimpton, who had acquired it in 1922 from diplomat-cum-antiquarian Edgar James Banks (the inspiration for Indiana Jones) for the unprincely sum of $10. On the basis of its handwriting, distinguished professor Eleanor Robson dates the tablet to around 1800 B.C., making it roughly 4,000 years old. The tablet itself contains a table (14 columns x 15 rows) written in cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script. From our modern perspective it is noteworthy that the table uses what are now called Pythagorean triples (i.e. integers a, b, c that a2 b2 = c2. The most common example that you probably remember from school is 3, 4, 5).

What this means is that long before ancient Greeks and Indian mathematicians formulated their own solutions, the Babylonians had an understanding of geometry. Mathematician Daniel Mansfield, a senior lecturer at the School of Mathematics and Statistics at UNSW Sydney and author of the headline-grabbing new article, told The Daily Beast that people “knew very simple geometry (areas for rectangles and right triangles) from the very earliest times. Then,........

© The Daily Beast

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