History of Mathematics

Old Babylonian Mathematics
Ancient Mesopotamia ©Anonymous
2000 BCE Jan 1 - 1600 BCE

Old Babylonian Mathematics

Babylon, Iraq

Babylonian mathematics were written using a sexagesimal (base-60) numeral system.[12] From this derives the modern-day usage of 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 360 (60 × 6) degrees in a circle, as well as the use of seconds and minutes of arc to denote fractions of a degree. It is likely the sexagesimal system was chosen because 60 can be evenly divided by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20 and 30.[12] Also, unlike the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, the Babylonians had a place-value system, where digits written in the left column represented larger values, much as in the decimal system.[13] The power of the Babylonian notational system lay in that it could be used to represent fractions as easily as whole numbers; thus multiplying two numbers that contained fractions was no different from multiplying integers, similar to modern notation.[13] The notational system of the Babylonians was the best of any civilization until the Renaissance,[14] and its power allowed it to achieve remarkable computational accuracy; for example, the Babylonian tablet YBC 7289 gives an approximation of √2 accurate to five decimal places.[14] The Babylonians lacked, however, an equivalent of the decimal point, and so the place value of a symbol often had to be inferred from the context.[13] By the Seleucid period, the Babylonians had developed a zero symbol as a placeholder for empty positions; however it was only used for intermediate positions.[13] This zero sign does not appear in terminal positions, thus the Babylonians came close but did not develop a true place value system.[13]


Other topics covered by Babylonian mathematics include fractions, algebra, quadratic and cubic equations, and the calculation of regular numbers, and their reciprocal pairs.[15] The tablets also include multiplication tables and methods for solving linear, quadratic equations and cubic equations, a remarkable achievement for the time.[16] Tablets from the Old Babylonian period also contain the earliest known statement of the Pythagorean theorem.[17] However, as with Egyptian mathematics, Babylonian mathematics shows no awareness of the difference between exact and approximate solutions, or the solvability of a problem, and most importantly, no explicit statement of the need for proofs or logical principles.[13]


They also used a form of Fourier analysis to compute an ephemeris (table of astronomical positions), which was discovered in the 1950s by Otto Neugebauer.[11] To make calculations of the movements of celestial bodies, the Babylonians used basic arithmetic and a coordinate system based on the ecliptic, the part of the heavens that the sun and planets travel through.


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Last Updated: : Thu Dec 28 2023