History of Science, Mathematics, Technology, #158


  158.  Cuneiform Tablet. Larsa (Tell Senkereh), Iraq, ca. 1820-1762 BCE. -- RBML, Plimpton Cuneiform 322 (See fuller description below.)
Close window     

  Close window     

"Plimpton 322" is known throughout the world to those interested in the history of mathematics as a result of the interest that Otto Neugebauer, chair of Brown University's History of Mathematics Department, took in the tablet. In the early 1940s, he and his assistant Abraham Sachs interpreted it as containing what is known in mathematics as Pythagorean triples, integer solutions of the equation a2 + b2 = c2, a thousand years before the age of Pythagoras.

Recently, Dr. Eleanor Robson, an authority on Mesopotamian mathematics at the University of Cambridge, has made the case for a more mundane solution, arguing that the tablet was created as a teacher's aid, designed for generating problems involving right triangles and reciprocal pairs. Mr. Plimpton, who collected "our tools of learning" on a broad scale, would have been delighted with this interpretation, showing the work of an excellent teacher, not a lone genius a thousand years ahead of his time.