Did you know there was a”Pythagorean” Theorem before Pythagoras?
When one hears the term “Pythagorean Theorem,” the image of the Greek mathematician Pythagoras often comes to mind. And while this mathematical statement holds a significant place in geometry, its origins might surprise many. Contrary to popular belief, evidence suggests the theorem’s knowledge existed 1,000 years before Pythagoras’s birth, with the Babylonians as its early proponents.
Pythagoras: The Man Behind the Name
Pythagoras’s reputation extends far beyond the realm of mathematics. His name adorns many geometry textbooks, and the theorem itself exists under several monikers like Pythagoras’ Theorem and notably Euclid I 47. With over 371 proofs attributed to this theorem, eminent figures, including a young Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and even US President James A. Garfield, have delved into its intricacies.
But for a man with such a renowned theorem attached to his name, little concrete information exists about Pythagoras. Most details that historians possess come from sources written centuries after his time, many of which paint him in an almost divine light, leading to debates about their historical accuracy.
Historical accounts align on a few aspects: Pythagoras was born around 569 BC in Samos, Ionia, and established a unique school in present-day Crotone, Italy. This institution, named the Semicircle of Pythagoras, was a blend of religious and scientific study. While it delved deep into subjects like philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy, it also treaded mystical terrains where numbers held divine significance.
Interestingly, much of what the Pythagoreans discovered was attributed directly to Pythagoras, making it a challenge to distinguish between the man’s actual contributions and those of his followers.
The True Pioneers of the Theorem Before Pythagoras
Long before Pythagoras established his school, the Babylonian civilization flourished in Mesopotamia, an area corresponding to modern-day Iraq. Nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, this civilization left behind a wealth of knowledge inscribed on clay tablets.
These tablets revealed a society that maintained meticulous records, especially in astronomy, arts, and literature. And among these records lies concrete evidence that Babylonian mathematicians had discovered and even proven the Pythagorean Theorem a millennium before Pythagoras was born.
The Babylonians recorded intricate problems and solutions on clay tablets. Among the myriad of tablets, the Plimpton 322 stands out. Dated to around 1800 BC, this tablet lists Pythagorean triplets—sets of three integers that fit the theorem we often attribute to Pythagoras. These inscriptions show that the Babylonians knew the relationship between the sides of a right triangle a millennium before Pythagoras.
For the Babylonians, mathematics wasn’t just theoretical. They saw and used its practical applications. Pythagorean triplets, for example, found use in land measurements, construction, and even astronomy. Their buildings and their celestial predictions show a deep understanding and application of their mathematical discoveries.
How did this profound understanding travel through time? Some historians believe that the mathematical concepts of the Babylonians might have reached neighboring civilizations through trade routes. While the exact path remains unclear, the Greeks, including Pythagoras, could have indirectly absorbed this knowledge.
While the Pythagorean Theorem remains a Greek mathematical cornerstone, its roots delve deep into Babylonian soil. As students and scholars alike marvel at this theorem, they should remember and honor the Babylonians, the original pioneers who first saw the harmony in a right triangle’s sides.