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Is this the oldest trigonometry table in history?

Credits: Wikipedia

Australian researchers have been working on what is thought to be the first trigonometry table in history.  Found at the start of the 20th century in Iraq, this antique table has gradually started to reveal it’s secrets!  

An important discovery

The antique table named  Plimpton 322 after the editor and American philanthropist who acquired it in 1922, was first discovered a few years beforehand in Iraq by Edgar Banks, an American archaeologist who inspired the famous character Indiana Jones.

At the end of 2017 a team of archaeologists from the University of New South Wales in Australia made a significant advancement in understand more about this antique table’s origins.  According to the study published in the journal Historia Mathematica, the official journal of the International Commission of Mathematics History, the researchers have managed to date the  Plimpton 322 table and define why and how it was used.

How does the table work ?

The table which was used by Babylonians during antiquity – is composed of 15 lines separated by four columns. It has a base index of 60, managing to derive whole numbers rather than fractions. According to the authors of this study, the table was used to study triangles.

However, this table takes into account proportions rather than angles. On the first line the proportions are almost equal forming almost equilateral triangles.  The closer to the bottom of the table you go, the narrower the triangles become.  This is because there is a more significant gradient.

Plimpton 322 table allow us to understand proportions rather than angles !
Credits : Wikipedia

What is it used for?

Australian researchers believe that this table demonstrates real ingenuity and that it would have been used to study the landscape – calculating the gradient of a slope as well as when constructing buildings particularly in the form of a pyramid.

In contrast, some experts like the American professor Donald Allen (from the University of A&M, Texas) remain skeptical. He said in an interview with the National Geographic that “the interpretation of it as a trig table is conjecture, as it is broken, and the telling part would be contained with the part broken off, and never found.”  Nevertheless, the expert does believe Plimpton 322 reveals the Babylonians seemed to understand the Pythagorean theorem well before Pythagoras was developed!


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