Tablet Shows Maybe Greeks Didn't Invent Trig After All

Researchers say Babylonians beat Greeks to trigonometry by 1,000 years
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 26, 2017 1:23 PM CDT
Tablet Shows Maybe Greeks Didn't Invent Trig After All
Researchers say this clay tablet discovered in the early 1900s is proof Babylonians developed trigonometry 1,000 years before the Greeks.   (Wikimedia Commons)

Greek astronomer Hipparchus is known as the father of trigonometry. But the Guardian reports Babylonian mathematicians may have gotten there 1,000 years earlier. Ever since the real-life inspiration for Indiana Jones discovered a 3,700-year-old clay tablet called P322 in what is now Iraq, historians and mathematicians have debated the meaning of the rows and columns of numbers on it, according to Science. In 1945, mathematicians realized those numbers contained the Pythagorean theorem for deducing the sides of a right triangle a millennium before Pythagoras had coined it, ABC reports. And in a study published Thursday in Historia Mathematica, Australian researchers believe they finally know what those mysterious numbers are: a trigonometric table more accurate than any we have now.

“It took me two years of looking at this and saying, ‘I’m sure it’s trig, I’m sure it’s trig, but how?’” mathematician Daniel Mansfield tells Science. One breakthrough came when Mansfield realized the Babylonians had a completely different way of looking at trigonometry than we do, one "based on ratios, not angles and circles." He calls it "fascinating" and evidence of "undoubted genius." And fellow researchers Norman Wildberger says P322 represents a "simpler, more accurate" version of trigonometry. While Mansfield and Wildberger say the Babylonians could have used the tablet to build pyramids and palaces, critics say there's no evidence for that and call the study's conclusions "highly speculative." (Those fortune cookie "lucky numbers" are definitely not unlucky.)

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