Plimpton 322

Plimpton 322

Of the approximately half million Babylonian clay tablets excavated since the beginning of the 19th century, several thousand are of a mathematical nature. Probably the most famous of these examples of Babylonian mathematics is the tablet called Plimpton 322, referring to the fact that it has number 322 in the G.A. Plimpton Collection at Columbia University. This tablet, believed to have been written about 1800 BCE, has a table of four columns and 15 rows of numbers in the cuneiform script of the period. The table appears to be a listing of Pythagorean triples, whole numbers that are a solution to the Pythagorean theorem, a^2 + b^2 = c^2, such as (3,4,5).

For readable popular treatments of this tablet see Robson (2002) or, more briefly, Conway and Guy (1996). Robson (2001) is a more detailed and technical discussion of the interpretation of the tablet's numbers, with an extensive bibliography.

Provenance and dating

Plimpton 322 is a partly broken clay tablet, approximately 13cm wide, 9cm tall, and 2cm thick. New York publisher George A. Plimpton purchased the tablet from an archaeological dealer, Edgar J. Banks, in about 1922, and bequeathed it with the rest of his collection to Columbia University in the mid 1930s. According to Banks, the tablet came from Senkereh, a site in southern Iraq corresponding to the ancient city of Larsa. [Robson (2002), p. 109.]

The tablet is believed to have been written about 1800 BCE, based in part on the style of handwriting used for its cuneiform script: Robson (2002) writes that this handwriting "is typical of documents from southern Iraq of 4000–3500 years ago." More specifically, based on formatting similarities with other tablets from Larsa that have explicit dates written on them, Plimpton 322 can be dated to the period 1822–1784 BCE. [Robson (2002), p. 111.]

The numbers

The main content of Plimpton 322 is a table of numbers, with four columns and fifteen rows, in Babylonian sexagesimal notation. The fourth column is just a row number, in order from 1 to 15. The second and third columns are completely visible in the surviving tablet. However, the edge of the first column has been broken off, and there are two consistent extrapolations for what the missing digits could be; these interpretations differ only in whether or not each number starts with an additional digit equal to 1. With the differing extrapolations shown in parentheses, these numbers are:

It is possible that additional columns were present in the broken-off part of the tablet to the left of these columns. Conversion of these numbers from sexagesimal to decimal raises additional ambiguities, as the Babylonian sexagesimal notation did not specify the power of the initial digit of each number.


In each row, the number in the second column can be interpreted as the shortest side "s" of a right triangle, and the number in the third column can be interpreted as the hypotenuse "d" of the triangle. The number in the first column is either the fraction frac{s^2}{l^2} or frac{d^2}{l^2}, where "l" denotes the longest side of the same right triangle.However, scholars differ on how these numbers were generated and why the Babylonians would have been interested in such tables.

Neugebauer (1951) argued for a number-theoretic interpretation, pointing out that this table provides a list of (pairs of numbers from) Pythagorean triples. For instance, line 11 of the table can be interpreted as describing a triangle with short side 3/4 and hypotenuse 5/4, forming the side:hypotenuse ratio of the familiar (3,4,5) right triangle. If "p" and "q" are two coprime numbers, then ( p^2 - q^2,, 2pq,, p^2 + q^2 ) form a Pythagorean triple, and all Pythagorean triples can be formed in this way. For instance, line 11 can be generated by this formula with "p" = 1 and "q" = 1/2. As Neugebauer argues, each line of the tablet can be generated by a pair ("p","q") that are both regular numbers, integer divisors of a power of 60. This property of "p" and "q" being regular leads to a denominator that is regular, and therefore to a finite sexagesimal representation for the fraction in the first column. Neugebauer's explanation is the one followed e.g. by Conway and Guy (1996). However, as Robson points out, Neugebauer's theory fails to explain how the values of "p" and "q" were chosen: there are 92 pairs of coprime regular numbers up to 60, and only 15 entries in the table. In addition, it does not explain why the table entries are in the order they are listed in, nor what the numbers in the first column were used for.

Joyce (1995) provides a trigonometric explanation: the values of the first column can be interpreted as the squared cosine or tangent (depending on the missing digit) of the angle opposite the short side of the right triangle described by each row, and the rows are sorted by these angles in roughly one-degree increments. However, Robson argues on linguistic grounds that this theory is "conceptually anachronistic": it depends on too many other ideas not present in the record of Babylonian mathematics from that time.

Robson (2001,2002), based on prior work by Bruins (1949,1955) and others, instead takes an approach that in modern terms would be characterized as algebraic, though she describes it in concrete geometric terms and argues that the Babylonians would also have interpreted this approach geometrically. Robson bases her interpretation on another tablet, YBC 6967, from roughly the same time and place. [cite book | author = Neugebauer, O.; Sachs, A. J. | title = Mathematical Cuneiform Texts | series = American Oriental Series, vol. 29 | publisher = American Oriental Society and the American Schools of Oriental Research | location = New Haven | year = 1945 | pages = text Ua] This tablet describes a method for solving what we would nowadays describe as quadratic equations of the form x- frac1x=c, by steps (described in geometric terms) in which the solver calculates a sequence of intermediate values "v"1 = "c"/2, "v"2 = "v"12, "v"3 = 1 + "v"2, and "v"4 = "v"31/2, from which one can calculate "x" = "v"4 + "v"1 and 1/"x" = "v"4 - "v"1. Robson argues that the columns of Plimpton 322 can be interpreted as the following values, for regular number values of "x" and 1/"x" in numerical order: "v"3 in the first column, "v"1 = ("x" - 1/"x")/2 in the second column, and "v"4 = ("x" + 1/"x")/2 in the third column. In this interpretation, "x" and 1/"x" would have appeared on the tablet in the broken-off portion to the left of the first column. For instance, row 11 of Plimpton 322 can be generated in this way for "x" = 2. Thus, the tablet can be interpreted as giving a sequence of worked-out exercises of the type solved by the method from tablet YBC 6967. It could, Robson suggests, have been used by a teacher as a problem set to assign to students.



*cite journal
author = Bruins, Evert M.
year = 1949
title = On Plimpton 322, Pythagorean numbers in Babylonian mathematics
journal = Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen Proceedings
volume = 52
pages = 629–632

*cite journal
author = Bruins, Evert M.
title = Pythagorean triads in Babylonian mathematics: The errors on Plimpton 322
journal = Sumer
volume = 11
pages = 117–121
year = 1951

*cite book
author = Conway, John H.; Guy, Richard K.
title = The Book of Numbers
pages = 172–176
publisher = Copernicus
year = 1996
id = ISBN 0-387-97993-X

*cite journal
url =
title = Plimpton 322
author = Joyce, David E.
year = 1995

*cite book
author = Neugebauer, O.
title = The Exact Sciences in Antiquity
edition = 2nd ed.
publisher = Munksgaard
location = Copenhagen
year = 1951
id = Available as a Dover reprint, ISBN 978-0486223322

*cite journal
author = Robson, Eleanor
title = Neither Sherlock Holmes nor Babylon: a reassessment of Plimpton 322
year = 2001
journal = Historia Math.
volume = 28
issue = 3
pages = 167–206
doi = 10.1006/hmat.2001.2317
id = MathSciNet | id = 1849797

*cite journal
author = Robson, Eleanor
title = Words and pictures: new light on Plimpton 322
year = 2002
journal = American Mathematical Monthly
volume = 109
issue = 2
pages = 105–120
doi = 10.2307/2695324
id = MathSciNet | id = 1903149

External links

* [ Description and picture of the tablet]
* [ "The Babylonian tablet Plimpton 322"]

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