It DOES compute!

The original meaning of the word calculator was one-who-calculates.  Before machines did it, scientists would get people to do the tedious work of routine number crunching.  They were still in use on big government projects like the Manhattan Project, where, I have heard, certain idiot savants, people of mediocre or impaired intellect who possessed uncanny abilities in math, e.g., extracting the square-root of enormous numbers, were employed.  The NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World is hosting a nice display of artefacts of the Ur-calculators, the scribe/engineer/mathematicians of the ancient Mesopotamian world. 

The exhibit is remarkable for the evidence it presents that the Pythagorean Theorem was known to these mud scribblers 1500 years before Pythagoras himself.  The scholar who edited and interpreted these pieces was adamant in his belief that much of Greek mathematics had been imported by them from elsewhere.

The header picture, from the NYTimes site, makes the tablet look like it has a very beautiful bronze-like color.  It doesn’t, but it’s still pretty remarkable!  It’s a list of pythagorean triples, i.e. lengths of the sides of right triangles


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3 Responses to It DOES compute!

  1. I get the impression that many of the great developments in mathematics happened independently in several different civilisations. For instance, the invention of “zero” – i.e. a symbol that denotes, literally, nothing, but which is nonetheless used to denote large numbers – is usually attributed to the Indian subcontinent, but exactly the same concept appears amongst the Mayans, some centuries before it is first recorded in India. The difference is that the concept spread from India to other parts of the world, whereas the same discovery on the part of the Mayans didn’t travel so well.

    Incidentally, here is a fascinating website containing 88 – yes, eighty-eight! – different ways of proving Pythagoras’ theorem:

  2. Man of Roma says:

    The exhibit is remarkable for the evidence it presents that the Pythagorean Theorem was known to these mud scribblers 1500 years before Pythagoras himself.

    That many discoveries in science happened independently is always possible. But the Greek authors – contrary to modern Westerns – never hid that a lot of their knowledge came from Egypt and from the East. Pythagoras was said by ancient writers to have visited Egypt, Arabia, Phoenicia, Judaea, Babylon, and India. Besides he was born and raised in the eastern Aegean, very much in contact with all that was eastern.

    • Lichanos says:

      Yes, and the study of early Greek art makes clear their debt there as well. Still, it’s a bit surprising to see the Theorem demonstrated so simply so much earlier!

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