So Plimpton 322, the inscrutable Babylonian superstar, has suddenly become scrutable. After a century of mathematics historians puzzling over 322’s strange list of Pythagorean triples, two UNSW mathematics have reportedly solved the mystery. Daniel Mansfield and Norman Wildberger have determined that this 3,800-ish year old clay tablet is most definitely a trigonometry table. Not only that, the media have reported that this amazing table is “more accurate than any today“, and “will make studying mathematics easier“.
Evelyn Lamb has provided a refreshingly sober view of all this drunken bravado. For a deeper history and consideration, read Eleanor Robson.
Babylonian mathematics is truly astonishing, containing some great insights. It would be no surprise if (but it is by no means guaranteed that) Plimpton 322 contains.great mathematics. What is definitely not great is to have a university media team encourage lazy journalists to overhype what is probably interesting research to the point of meaninglessness.
2 Replies to “Going off at a Tangent”
Theorem: Let S be the set of strategies proposed for the teaching of Mathematics since 1600 that claim to “make studying Mathematics easier”. Let T be a subset of S that only contains strategies reported in the popular press. T is most definitely an empty set. The status of S has yet to be determined.
Proof: Left as an exercise to the reader, who may like to offer a counter-example but be warned that such a claim will be scrutinised over at least one bottle of wine and perhaps a vodka, depending on the time of day.
Segueing: Irving Finkel is a fun listen on YT and has several videos explaining cuneiform.
Note that there are some nice parallels with Maya writing. Both are syllabaries. Both have multiple signs for same sounds. And both required a “Rosetta Stone” to figure out the translation. They weren’t done from first principles. But we needed a key in. And…you really need to see Breaking the Code. Great film.