An Australian mathematician has recently discovered that the markings on an ancient fragment of clay tablet dating back to 3,700 years ago — during the Old Babylonian period — are the oldest known example of applied geometry.
The tablet, known as Si.427, dates back to more than 1,000 years before the birth of Pythagoras and was discovered in the late 19th century in what is now Iraq. The history-altering artifact was lying in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum before Dr. Daniel Mansfield from the University of New South Wales tracked it down.
As reported by The Guardian, Mansfield and Norman Wildberger, an associate professor at UNSW, had previously identified another Babylonian tablet containing the world’s oldest and most accurate trigonometric table. That tablet, called Plimpton 322, contained Pythagorean triples and set Mansfield on a quest to find other tablets from the same period with similar notations, eventually leading him to Si.427. Although both tablets use Pythagorean triples, they predate the Greek mathematician by more than a millennium.
“Si.427 is about a piece of land that’s being sold,” Mansfield said. Featuring a cuneiform script, the tablet describes a field containing marshy areas, as well as a threshing floor and nearby tower. “Once you understand what Pythagorean triples are, your society has reached a particular level of mathematical sophistication,” Mansfield said. Si.427 contains three Pythagorean triples: 3, 4, 5; 8, 15, 17; and 5, 12, 13.
According to Mansfield, the tablet dates from a period of increasing private land ownership: “Now that we know what problem the Babylonians were solving, that recolors all the mathematical tablets from this period. You see mathematics being developed to address the needs of the time.”
Study source: Foundations of Science — Plimpton 322: A Study of Rectangles
Image source: The Guardian