Mysterious Babylonian tablet discovered by real Indiana Jones has finally been deciphered

Ancient Babylonian Tablet Identified as the World's Oldest Trigonometry Table

The main body of the obverse is ruled by neat horizontal lines into 15 equally spaced rows containing sexagesimal (base 60) numbers, some of which are quite large.

But if the new study is right, then the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who lived about 120 BC, is not the father of trigonometry that he's always been regarded as. If the UNSW study does show how the tablet was used to find approximate solutions to equations involving triangles, only speculative historical context can determine exactly how the tablet was applied in day-to-day life said Wildberger.

Babylonians were the pioneers of trigonometry - the study of triangles - and they trumped the Greeks by 1,000 years, revealed an analysis of a 3,700-year-old mathematical clay tablet, whose objective was not known till now.

The new study by Mansfield and UNSW Associate Professor Norman Wildberger is published in Historia Mathematica, the official journal of the International Commission on the History of Mathematics.

Crazily enough, Plimpton 322 is not just the oldest trig table, the researchers say it's the most accurate trig table on record, on account of the ancient Babylonians' unique base-60 approach to arithmetic and geometry (try dividing 1 by 3 and you'll instantly run into the limitations of our base-10 system).

"The 15 rows on the tablet describe a sequence of 15 right-angle triangles, which are steadily decreasing in inclination", they explained.

The Plimpton 322 tablet is now housed in Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library in NY. "Plimpton 322 was a powerful tool that could have been used for surveying fields or making architectural calculations to build palaces, temples or step pyramids", said Mansfield, who first read about the tablet when preparing material for first-year math students.

The UNSW Sydney, whose scientists discovered the objective of the tablet, said the left-hand edge of the tablet is broken and the researchers build on previous research to present new mathematical evidence that there were originally six columns and that the tablet was meant to be completed with 38 rows. Discovered in the early 1900s, the tablet has been of interest to mathematicians for years because it describes Pythagoras' theorem, yet is thought to have been created around 1800BC, more than a thousand years before Pythagoras was born and started tinkering with triangles.

NSW researchers Dr Daniel Mansfield and professor Norman Wildberger say the identification of a pattern called "Pythagorean triples" was a key clue to pinpointing the tablet's objective.

"The left-hand edge of the tablet is broken and we build on previous research to present new mathematical evidence that there were originally 6 columns and that the tablet was meant to be completed with 38 rows".

For almost 100 years, the mysterious tablet has been referred to as Plimpton 322.

His "table of chords" on a circle is considered to be the oldest trigonometric table, but the Plimpton 322 tablet has knocked it off the top spot.

He and Dr. Wildberger made a decision to study Babylonian mathematics and examine the different historical interpretations of the tablet's meaning. "The mathematical world is only waking up to the fact that this ancient but very sophisticated mathematical culture has much to teach us", Wildberger said.



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