Ancient Tablet May Show Earliest Use of This Advanced Math

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".an unknown Babylonian genius took a clay tablet and a reed pen and marked out not just the same (Pythagoras) theorem, but a series of trigonometry tables which scientists claim are more accurate than any available today", a report in The Guardian said.

He added: "The tablet not only contains the world's oldest trigonometric table; it is also the only completely accurate trigonometric table, because of the very different Babylonian approach to arithmetic and geometry". Now, new research states that the artifact actually shows that the Mesopotamians were the first to discover trigonometry, beating the Greeks by over a thousand years.

The tablet, which is called Plimpton 322, was recovered in modern day Iraq roughly a hundred years ago.

Plimpton 322, a 3,700-year-old Babylonian tablet held in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University in NY.

The research provides an alternative theory to the widely-held view that the Plimpton 322 was a teacher's aid for checking students' solutions of quadratic problems.

After conducting a historiographical analysis of the tablet's purported objective, Mansfield and Wildberger took a closer look at the tablet and its inscriptions. The tablet's rows describe a sequence of 15 right-angle triangles, decreasing in inclination. The tablet, known as Plimpton 322, was previously identified as a table filled with sets of Pythagorean triples, but nobody knew its objective was anything more than an educational tool.

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By applying Babylonian mathematical models, the researchers were able to show that the tablet would originally have had 6 columns and 38 rows.

Until now. The tablet, it has been discovered, proffers the world's oldest trigonometric table, describing the shape of right-angle triangles based on ratios, as opposed to angles and circles, which is the conventional method.

"The huge mystery, until now, was its goal - why the ancient scribes carried out the complex task of generating and sorting the numbers on the tablet", the researchers said. With this, they reckon, scribes using a base 60 numerical arithmetic similar to our time clock, could have generated the numbers on the tablet.

Traditionally, Greek astronomer Hipparchus is credited with inventing trigonometry around 120 B.C. However, this tablet predates the astronomer by over 1,000 years. Whilst, Dr Mansfield relays with more than a hint of dismay, "Babylonian mathematics may have been out of fashion for more than 3000 years", the trigonometric table in question could have applications in modern industries like surveying, education, and computer graphics.

UNSW mathematician Dr. Daniel Mansfield believes the trigonometry on Plimpton 322 probably helped the Babylonian architects build the city.

"Apart from the column headings, the tablet just consists of columns of numbers, and this invites a great deal of purely mathematical speculation", said Melville in an emailed statement to National Geographic.

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