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This ancient Babylonian tablet may contain the first evidence of trigonometry

By Ron CowenAug. 24, 2017 , 2:00 PM

Trigonometry, the study of the lengths and angles of triangles, sends most modern high schoolers scurrying to their cellphones to look up angles, sines, and cosines. Now, a fresh look at a 3700-year-old clay tablet suggests that Babylonian mathematicians not only developed the first trig table, beating the Greeks to the punch by more than 1000 years, but that they also figured out an entirely new way to look at the subject. However, other experts on the clay tablet, known as Plimpton 322 (P322), say the new work is speculative at best.

Consisting of four columns and 15 rows of numbers inscribed in cuneiform, the famous P322 tablet was discovered in the early 1900s in what is now southern Iraq by archaeologist, antiquities dealer, and diplomat Edgar Banks, the inspiration for the fictional character Indiana Jones.

Now stored at Columbia University, the tablet first garnered attention in the 1940s, when historians recognized that its cuneiform inscriptions contain a series of numbers echoing the Pythagorean theorem, which explains the relationship of the lengths of the sides of a right triangle. (The theorem: The square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the square of the other two sides.) But why ancient scribes generated and sorted these numbers in the first place has been debated for decades.

The cuneiform inscriptions on Plimpton 322 suggest the Babylonians used a form of trigonometry based on the ratios of the sides of a triangle, rather than the more familiar angles, sines, and cosines.

Mathematician Daniel Mansfield of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney was developing a course for high school math teachers in Australia when he came across an image of P322. Intrigued, he teamed up with UNSW mathematician Norman Wildberger to study it. “It took me 2 years of looking at this [tablet] and saying ‘I’m sure it’s trig, I’m sure it’s trig, but how?’” Mansfield says. The familiar sines, cosines, and angles used by Greek astronomers and modern-day high schoolers were completely missing. Instead, each entry includes information on two sides of a right triangle: the ratio of the short side to the long side and the ratio of the short side to the diagonal, or hypotenuse.

Mansfield realized that the information he needed was in missing pieces of P322 that had been reconstructed by other researchers. “Those two ratios from the reconstruction really made P322 into a clean and easy-to-use trigonometric table,” he says. He and Wildberger concluded that the Babylonians expressed trigonometry in terms of exact ratios of the lengths of the sides of right triangles, rather than by angles, using their base 60 form of mathematics, they report today in Historia Mathematica. “This is a whole different way of looking at trigonometry,” Mansfield says. “We prefer sines and cosines … but we have to really get outside our own culture to see from their perspective to be able to understand it.”

If the new interpretation is right, P322 would not only contain the earliest evidence of trigonometry, but it would also represent an exact form of the mathematical discipline, rather than the approximations that estimated numerical values for sines and cosines provide, notes Mathieu Ossendrijver, a historian of ancient science at Humboldt University in Berlin. The table, he says, contains exact values of the sides for a range of right triangles. That means that—as for modern trigonometric tables—someone using the known ratio of two sides can use information in the tablet to find the ratios of the two other sides.

What’s still lacking is proof that the Babylonians did in fact use this table, or others like it, for solving problems in the manner suggested in the new paper, Ossendrijver says. And science historian Jöran Friberg, retired from the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, blasts the idea. The Babylonians “knew NOTHING about ratios of sides!” he wrote in an email to Science. He maintains that P322 is “a table of parameters needed for the composition of school texts and, [only] incidentally, a table of right triangles with whole numbers as sides.” But Mansfield and Wildberger contend that the Babylonians, expert surveyors, could have used their tables to construct palaces, temples, and canals.

Mathematical historian Christine Proust of the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, an expert on the tablet, calls the team’s hypothesis “a very seductive idea.” But she points out that no known Babylonian texts suggest that the tablet was used to solve or understand right triangles. The hypothesis is “mathematically robust, but for the time being, it is highly speculative,” she says. A thorough search of other Babylonian mathematical tablets may yet prove their hypothesis, Ossendrijver says. “But that is really an open question at the moment.”

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