Did Babylonians Beat The Greeks To Trigonometry?

We’re all used to learning that it was the Ancient Greeks who invented (or inflicted for those of us who hate Maths) Trigonometry but recent evidence suggests that they may have been beaten to it those canny Babylonians.

3,700-year-old clay tablet has proven that the Babylonians developed trigonometry 1,500 years before the Greeks and were using a sophisticated method of mathematics which could change how we calculate today.

Neo-Babylonian_Empire

The tablet, known as Plimpton 332, was discovered in the early 1900s in what is now Southern Iraq by the American archaeologist and diplomat Edgar Banks, who was the inspiration for Indiana Jones.

The true meaning of the tablet has eluded experts until now but new research by the University of New South Wales, Australia, has shown it is the world’s oldest and most accurate trigonometric table, which was probably used by ancient architects to construct temples, palaces and canals.

However unlike today’s trigonometry, Babylonian mathematics used a base 60, or sexagesimal system, rather than the 10 which is used today. Because 60 is far easier to divide by three, experts studying the tablet, found that the calculations are far more accurate.

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“Our research reveals that Plimpton 322 describes the shapes of right-angle triangles using a novel kind of trigonometry based on ratios, not angles and circles,” said Dr Daniel Mansfield of the School of Mathematics and Statistics in the UNSW Faculty of Science.

“It is a fascinating mathematical work that demonstrates undoubted genius. The tablet not only contains the world’s oldest trigonometric table; it is also the only completely accurate trigonometric table, because of the very different Babylonian approach to arithmetic and geometry.

806px-Babylonian_numerals.svg

Note how the Babylonians didn’t have a representation for Zero.

“This means it has great relevance for our modern world. Babylonian mathematics may have been out of fashion for more than 3000 years, but it has possible practical applications in surveying, computer graphics and education.

“This is a rare example of the ancient world teaching us something new.”

The Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who lived around 120BC, has long been regarded as the father of trigonometry, with his ‘table of chords’ on a circle considered the oldest trigonometric table.

A trigonometric table allows a user to determine two unknown ratios of a right-angled triangle using just one known ratio. But the tablet is far older than Hipparchus, demonstrating that the Babylonians were already well advanced in complex mathematics far earlier.

The tablet, which is thought to have come from the ancient Sumerian city of Larsa, has been dated to between 1822 and 1762 BC. It is now in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University in New York.

 

“Plimpton 322 predates Hipparchus by more than 1000 years,” says Dr Wildberger.

“It opens up new possibilities not just for modern mathematics research, but also for mathematics education. With Plimpton 322 we see a simpler, more accurate trigonometry that has clear advantages over our own.

A treasure-trove of Babylonian tablets exists, but only a fraction of them have been studied yet. The mathematical world is only waking up to the fact that this ancient but very sophisticated mathematical culture has much to teach us.

Plimpton 322 clay tablet.

Plimpton 322 clay tablet.

The 15 rows on the tablet describe a sequence of 15 right-angle triangles, which are steadily decreasing in inclination.

The left-hand edge of the tablet is broken but the researchers believe t there were originally six columns and that the tablet was meant to be completed with 38 rows.

“Plimpton 322 was a powerful tool that could have been used for surveying fields or making architectural calculations to build palaces, temples or step pyramids,” added Dr Mansfield.

The new study is published in Historia Mathematica, the official journal of the International Commission on the History of Mathematics.

Of course for people who think the Ancient Babylonians and their Sexagesimal has no use, we still use 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour.  Geometry is based around 360 degrees and 360 is of course made up of 6 sets of 60.

Fans of ancient Greece shouldn’t be too disheartened even if this particular branch of maths was not invented by them as it has been reported recently that the great Chinese Terracotta Army may well have been built by the Greeks.

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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2 Responses to Did Babylonians Beat The Greeks To Trigonometry?

  1. Oh god, maths…! (shivers) – that table is making me go boss eyed! Great informative post as always Stefano…but nobody beats the Greeks to anything!!!! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, I wouldn’t want to be in Babylonian Maths class!! Of course you’re right, perhaps the Greeks got their first but smashed all the clay tablets after some bizarre mathematics party 🙂 so the evidence has vanished!!

      Like

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