Ancient Babylonian tablet more accurate than Apple's

Ancient Babylonian tablet more accurate than Apple's

The ancient tablet has numbers written in 15 rows and four columns. Further, the 15 rows on the tablet were deciphered as a sequence of 15 right-angle triangles, which are steadily decreasing in inclination. But it's flawless for what the Babylonians were doing, namely constructing large buildings, calculating the steepness of grades, and measuring land areas for agricultural use.

NSW researchers Dr Daniel Mansfield and professor Norman Wildberger say the identification of a pattern called "Pythagorean triples" was a key clue to pinpointing the tablet's objective. And in a study published Thursday in Historia Mathematica, Australian researchers believe they finally know what those mysterious numbers are: a trigonometric table more accurate than any we have now.

Banks - the real-life inspiration for the adventure-seeking archaeologist movie character Indiana Jones - discovered the clay object in Iraq.

His "table of chords" on a circle is considered to be the oldest trigonometric table, but the Plimpton 322 tablet has knocked it off the top spot.

Traditionally, Greek astronomer Hipparchus is credited with inventing trigonometry around 120 B.C. However, this tablet predates the astronomer by over 1,000 years. In addition, the tablet might even hold useful lessons for modern-day mathematicians.

Plimpton bequeathed his entire collection of mathematical artifacts to Columbia University in 1936, and it resides there today in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The left-hand edge of the tablet, however, is broken, although scientists built on previous research to present new mathematical evidence that there were originally six columns and the tablet was meant to be completed with 38 rows. Turns out a Babylonian man mastered the science 3,700 years back, a millennium before Greek mathematician Pythagoras came up with his formula on the right-angled triangle.

The simplicity and accuracy of this once-lost form of Babylonian trigonometry "has clear advantages" over modern trigonometry, study co-author Norman Wildberger, an associate professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said in the statement.

"The huge mystery, until now, was its goal - why the ancient scribes carried out the complex task of generating and sorting the numbers on the tablet", Mansfield said.

So how did the tablet help Babylonians do their sums?

Mansfield and Wildberger say that if their interpretation is correct, Plimpton 322 would not only be the oldest known trigonometric table, but it would also be the "world's only completely accurate trigonometric table". The tablet, known as Plimpton 322, was previously identified as a table filled with sets of Pythagorean triples, but nobody knew its goal was anything more than an educational tool.

"It opens up new possibilities not just for modern mathematics research, but also for mathematics education", he said.

Scientists at a university in Sydney have solved an ancient mystery that's had mathematicians around the world scratching their heads for more than 70 years.

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