Masters of Math, From Old Babylon





If the cost of digging a trench is 9 gin, and the trench has a length of 5 ninda and is one-half ninda deep, and if a worker’s daily load of earth costs 10 gin to move, and his daily wages are 6 se of silver, then how wide is the canal?

Or, a better question: if you were a tutor of Babylonian scribes some 4,000 years ago, holding a clay tablet on which this problem was incised with cuneiform indentations — the very tablet that can now be seen with 12 others from that Middle Eastern civilization at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World — what could you take for granted, and what would you need to explain to your students? In what way did you think about measures of time and space? How did you calculate? Did you believe numbers had an abstract existence, each with its own properties?...

Spend some time at this modest yet thoroughly intriguing exhibition, “Before Pythagoras: The Culture of Old Babylonian Mathematics,” and you begin to realize that the answers can be far more cryptic than these tablets were before great scholars like Otto E. Neugebauer began to decipher them during the first half of the 20th century....

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