A Babylonian tabled discovered in today’s Iraq at the beginning of the 20th century has been the object of wonder among scientists. Only recently, they have managed to find out the tablet made of clay was actually a trigonometric table. The tablet is around 3,700 years old, making the Babylonians the first to have used the trigonometric system, 1,000 years before the Greeks.
The first trigonometric table existed 1,000 before the Greeks used the system
The clay tablet, dubbed Plimpton 322, has been a mystery for mathematicians since its discovery in the 1900s. They assumed its origin was from Larsa, an ancient Sumerian city, and thought it was created between 1822 and 1762 BC.
It is 3.5 inches wide and 5 inches long, and contains four columns of cuneiform numbers arranged in 15 rows. The tablet got its name from George Arthur Plimpton, an American philanthropist. He was the one who bought the tablet and made it public in 1922.
The tablet can still teach us many things about modern science
Mathematicians discovered the tablet had the Pythagorean triples written on it, which kept them baffled for the past decades. Now, they realized the tablet was in fact the oldest trigonometric table in the world. Also, since the Babylonians had adopted a whole different approach on mathematics, this was also the most accurate table of the sorts.
Although the mathematical principles used 3,000 years ago are no longer accurate today, the discovery is still vital. Today’s scientists can learn a lot from this ancient trigonometric table. The findings are crucial for a better understanding of modern computation or surveys.
The tablet was discovered by an archaeologist and antiquities dealer, Edgar Banks. Thanks to his finding, mathematicians learned it wasn’t the Greek astronomer Hipparchus the one who discovered trigonometry. Moreover, Banks also revealed the precession of the equinoxes.
Image credit: UNSW/Andrew Kelly