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Exhibit: Babylonian Mathematics. New York City. Dec. 17, 2010

pythagorasLocation: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University, 15 East 84th Street, New York City. Dates: November 12 – December 17, 2010. Admission: Free

Before Pythagoras: The Culture of Old Babylonian Mathematics

This exhibition, held at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University, 15 East 84th Street, New York City, presents an unprecedented grouping of tablets from the first golden age of mathematics, highlighting both classroom training and advanced curiosity-driven mathematics.

Since the nineteenth century, thousands of cuneiform tablets dating to the Old Babylonian Period (c. 1900-1700 BCE) have come to light at various sites in ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). A significant number record mathematical tables, problems, and calculations. The study of these tablets reveal a rich culture of mathematical practice and education that flourished more than a thousand years before the Greek sages Thales and Pythagoras with whom histories of mathematics used to begin.

The cuneiform tablets illustrate three major themes: arithmetic exploiting a notation of numbers based entirely on two basic symbols; the scribal schools of Nippur; and advanced training. Many of the latter problems were much more difficult than any that they would have to deal with in professional scribal careers, and their solutions depended on principles that, before the rediscovery of the Babylonian tablets, were believed to have been discovered by the Greeks of the sixth century BCE and after.

Visit the online exhibit highlights to see images of tablets, that illustrate multiplication tables, square roots, and the Pythagorean Theorem.

(Image: Old Babylonian tablet containing problems concerning the digging of trenches. Clay, 19th-17th century BCE, Yale Babylonian Collection YBC 4663. Photo by Christine Proust, all rights reserved.)

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