"Our Tools of Learning" : George Arthur Plimpton's Gifts to Columbia University

Mathematics > Page 2

Cuneiform tablet

Larsa (Tell Senkereh), Iraq, ca. 1820-1762 BCE

Cuneiform 322

Mr. Plimpton would be pleased and proud that this cuneiform tablet, “Plimpton 322,” is known throughout the world to those interested in the history of mathematics. In the early 1940s, Otto Neugebauer, chair of Brown University’s History of Mathematics Department, and his assistant Abraham Sachs interpreted it as containing what is known in mathematics as Pythagorean triples, integer solutions of the equation a2 + b2 = c2, a thousand years before the age of Pythagoras. Recently, Dr. Eleanor Robson, an authority on Mesopotamian mathematics at the University of Cambridge, has made the case for a more mundane solution, arguing that the tablet was created as a teacher’s aid, designed for generating problems involving right triangles and reciprocal pairs. Mr. Plimpton would have been delighted with this interpretation, showing the work of an excellent teacher, not a lone genius a thousand years ahead of his time.

Gift of George Arthur Plimpton


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