The Plimpton 322 tablet re-examined

Several years back I blogged about the Plimpton 322 tablet – a Babylonian clay tablet from around 1,800 BC. It contains four columns of numbers, written in base 60 (with a small number of errors, as well as some numbers missing through damage – these are corrected below). For example, 1.59:00:15 = 1 + 59/60 + 0/3600 + 15/216000 = 1.983402777777778.

Column B of the tablet (with a label on the tablet containing the word “width”) is one of the sides of a Pythagorean triangle, and column C (with a label on the tablet containing the word “diagonal”) is the hypotenuse, such that C2 − B2 is always a perfect square (yellow in the diagram). Column A is exactly equal to C2 / (C2 − B2), the ratio of blue to yellow.

A B (“width”) C (“diagonal”) D
1.59:00:15 = 1.983402777777778 1:59 = 119 2:49 = 169 #1
1.56:56:58:14:50:06:15 = 1.949158552088692 56:07 = 3367 1:20:25 = 4825 #2
1.55:07:41:15:33:45 = 1.918802126736111 1:16:41 = 4601 1:50:49 = 6649 #3
1.53:10:29:32:52:16 = 1.886247906721536 3:31:49 = 12709 5:09:01 = 18541 #4
1.48:54:01:40 = 1.815007716049383 1:05 = 65 1:37 = 97 #5
1.47:06:41:40 = 1.785192901234568 5:19 = 319 8:01 = 481 #6
1.43:11:56:28:26:40 = 1.719983676268861 38:11 = 2291 59:01 = 3541 #7
1.41:33:45:14:03:45 = 1.692709418402778 13:19 = 799 20:49 = 1249 #8
1.38:33:36:36 = 1.642669444444444 8:01 = 481 12:49 = 769 #9
1.35:10:02:28:27:24:26:40 = 1.586122566110349 1:22:41 = 4961 2:16:01 = 8161 #10
1.33:45 = 1.5625 45 1:15 = 75 #11
1.29:21:54:02:15 = 1.489416840277778 27:59 = 1679 48:49 = 2929 #12
1.27:00:03:45 = 1.450017361111111 2:41 = 161 4:49 = 289 #13
1.25:48:51:35:06:40 = 1.430238820301783 29:31 = 1771 53:49 = 3229 #14
1.23:13:46:40 = 1.38716049382716 28 53 #15

What is this table all about? A good discussion is by Eleanor Robson [Words and pictures: new light on Plimpton 322,” American Mathematical Monthly, 109 (2): 105–120]. Robson sees Plimpton 322 as fitting into standard Babylonian mathematics, and interprets it as a teacher’s effort to produce a list of class problems.

Specifically, Robson believes that the table was generated by taking values of x (in descending order of x) from standard Babylonian reciprocal tables (specifically the values 2:24, 2:22:13:20, 2:20:37:30, 2:18:53:20, 2:15, 2:13:20, 2:09:36, 2:08, 2:05, 2:01:30, 2, 1:55:12, 1:52:30, 1:51:06:40, and 1:48) and then using the relationship (x − 1 / x)2 + 22 = (x + 1 / x)2 to generate Pythagorean triples. If we let y = (x − 1 / x) / 2 and z = (x + 1 / x) / 2, then B and C are multiples of y and z, and A = z2 / (z2 − y2).

Just recently, Daniel F. Mansfield and N. J. Wildberger [Plimpton 322 is Babylonian exact sexagesimal trigonometry,” Historia Mathematica, online 24 August 2017] interpret the table as proto-trigonometry. I find their explanation of the first column (“a related squared ratio which can be used as an index”) unconvincing, though. Why such a complex index? Robson calls such trigonometric interpretations “conceptually anachronistic,” and points out that there is no other evidence of the Babylonians doing trigonometry.

Mansfield and Wildberger also suggest that “the numbers on P322 are just too big to allow students to reasonably obtain the square roots of the quantities required.” However, I don’t think that’s true. The Babylonians loved to calculate. Using the standard square-root algorithm, even simplistic starting guesses for the square roots of the numbers in column A give convergence in 2 or 3 steps every time. For example, to get the square root of 1.59:00:15 (1.983402777777778), I start with 1.30:00:00 (1.5) as a guess. That gives 1.24:40:05 as the next iteration, then 1.24:30:01, and then 1.24:30:00 (1.408333333333333), which is the exact answer. That said, however, calculating those square roots was not actually necessary for the class problems envisaged by Robson.

Sadly, I do not think that Mansfield and Wildberger have made their case. Robson is, I believe, still correct on the meaning of this tablet.


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