History of Mathematics

It's Irrational
Pythagoreans' Hymn to the Rising Sun. ©Fyodor Bronnikov
400 BCE Jan 1

It's Irrational

Metapontum, Province of Matera

The first proof of the existence of irrational numbers is usually attributed to a Pythagorean (possibly Hippasus of Metapontum),[39] who probably discovered them while identifying sides of the pentagram.[40] The then-current Pythagorean method would have claimed that there must be some sufficiently small, indivisible unit that could fit evenly into one of these lengths as well as the other. Hippasus, in the 5th century BC, however, was able to deduce that there was in fact no common unit of measure, and that the assertion of such an existence was in fact a contradiction.

Greek mathematicians termed this ratio of incommensurable magnitudes alogos, or inexpressible. Hippasus, however, was not lauded for his efforts: according to one legend, he made his discovery while out at sea, and was subsequently thrown overboard by his fellow Pythagoreans 'for having produced an element in the universe which denied the... doctrine that all phenomena in the universe can be reduced to whole numbers and their ratios.'[41] Whatever the consequence to Hippasus himself, his discovery posed a very serious problem to Pythagorean mathematics, since it shattered the assumption that number and geometry were inseparable–a foundation of their theory.