By Lyra Lu
If you have or had Algebra I class, it’s expected that you learn many formulas, and solve many problems. One of the many formulas learnt in the course is the Pythagoras Theorem which is a2 + b2 = c2. This theorem is used to determine if a triangle is a right triangle or not and can find single missing lengths. Modern day GPS systems also use this theorem to help compute distance between locations. Additionally as you age and learn more in math, you will eventually learn many similar theorems/formulas. You may have also inferred that Pythagoras is the founder, so to speak, of the theorem. However, what if this is wrong? How could it be? The theorem is named after him, so why would he not be the founder of it? Perhaps it’s a Hardy-Weinberg issue, where the credit was given to the second person who developed it, and not the first (1). That’s kind of the case.
It is not firmly established yet whether Pythagoras came up with the theorem with no major external influence, or if he developed what the Babylonians already knew. Yes, you read that right, Babylonian people! Namely it was a tablet that they had: the famous Plimpton 332 (see image); although you probably have never heard of it. This was written in 1800 BC, and to put things into perspective, it was nearly 4000 years ago. Seems we’ve hit a decline if it took that long for anyone to re-create it. Just like with sewage systems, the Olmec (over 2000 years ago) developed it long before it was recreated modern day (2).
Anyway, Plimpton 332 contained fifteen Pythagoras triples written in Cuneiform (ancient wedge shaped writing) and was named after George Arthur Plimpton, who eventually gave it to Columbia University. I’m sure you would all love to know how it was written, but I’m in no mood to bewilder anyone, so if you’re curious, search it up! So the Babylonians knew math better than Pythagoras did. Big deal. He still developed it, right? Well… maybe? To find out we’ll need to explore more into Pythagoras’ life.
Pythagoras of Samos lived from 580 – 500 BCE and was coached at an early age by Thales, who is another famous mathematician. Thales worked mainly with geometry. He is also credited as the first philosopher and associated with the famous quote “Know thyself.” It’s no wonder, then, Pythagoras was so well accustomed to math and its workings. Not only that, he practically worshiped math. He believed god to be a number, and thought ten was a special number, indeed, believing 10 was related to 4 (1+2+3+4=10), and that it was a holy number. He and his followers believed 1 to be the generator of all numbers. The number 2 he associated with females and opinion, 3 with males and harmony, 4 was justice/retribution, and 6 was creation, as well as the first perfect number (the numbers go on, and I’ll leave more at the end of this article). He was also attracted to square numbers or what we call perfect squares, going as far as creating a method to find perfect squares, which I won’t bore you with.
Pythagoras was an avid traveler and went to places such as Egypt and Mesopotamia (Babylonia). In Egypt he studied religion and math. Likewise, he also studied math in Mesopotamia, as well as astronomy and scientific methods. Some believe he learned the theorem during his visit, and others believe he simply absorbed related concepts. Regardless, he was still the first (as we know of) to prove the Pythagoras Theorem. Additionally, his ideas also seem to be related to Indian principles, so some believe he may have traveled as far as India.
The truth of the matter is that we do not quite know. And he isn’t the only mysterious one! To us, there is always someone we don’t know much about, there is always more to learn, and there are always more questions to ask! Always stay curious and inquisitive!
1 Learnt in Ms. Foraker’s class in 8th grade, Thanks!
2 Learnt in Ms. Buffalino’s class in 9th grade, Thanks!
A Strange Wilderness by Amir D. Aczel – Most of my information came from here.
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