The area of study known as the history of mathematics is primarily an investigation into the origin of discoveries in mathematics and, to a lesser extent, an investigation into the mathematical methods and notation of the past.
Before the modern age and the worldwide spread of knowledge, written examples of new mathematical developments have come to light only in a few locales. The most ancient mathematical texts available are Plimpton 322 (Babylonian mathematics c. 1900 BC), the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (Egyptian mathematics c. 2000-1800 BC) and the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus (Egyptian mathematics c. 1890 BC). All of these texts concern the so-called Pythagorean theorem, which seems to be the most ancient and widespread mathematical development after basic arithmetic and geometry.
The study of mathematics as a subject in its own right begins in the 6th century BC with the Pythagoreans, who coined the term “mathematics” from the ancient Greek μάθημα (mathema), meaning “subject of instruction”. Greek mathematics greatly refined the methods (especially through the introduction of deductive reasoning and mathematical rigor in proofs) and expanded the subject matter of mathematics. Chinese mathematics made early contributions, including a place value system. The Hindu-Arabic numeral system and the rules for the use of its operations, in use throughout the world today, likely evolved over the course of the first millennium AD in India and was transmitted to the west via Islamic mathematics. Islamic mathematics, in turn, developed and expanded the mathematics known to these civilizations. Many Greek and Arabic texts on mathematics were then translated into Latin, which led to further development of mathematics in medieval Europe.
From ancient times through the Middle Ages, bursts of mathematical creativity were often followed by centuries of stagnation. Beginning in Renaissance Italy in the 16th century, new mathematical developments, interacting with new scientific discoveries, were made at an increasing pace that continues through the present day.
The origin of mathematical thought lie in the concepts of number, magnitude, and form. Modern studies of animal cognition have shown that these concepts are not unique to humans. Such concepts would have been part of everyday life in hunter-gatherer societies. The idea of the “number” concept evolving gradually over time is supported by the existence of languages which preserve the distinction between “one”, “two”, and “many”, but not of numbers larger than two.
The oldest known possibly mathematical object is the Lebombo bone, discovered in the Lebombo mountains of Swaziland and dated to approximately 35,000 BC. It consists of 29 distinct notches cut into a baboon’s fibula. Also prehistoric artifacts discovered in Africa and France, dated between 35,000 and 20,000 years old, suggest early attempts to quantify time.
The Ishango bone, found near the headwaters of the Nile river (northeastern Congo), may be as much as 20,000 years old and consists of a series of tally marks carved in three columns running the length of the bone. Common interpretations are that the Ishango bone shows either the earliest known demonstration of sequences of prime numbers or a six-month lunar calendar. In the book How Mathematics Happened: The First 50,000 Years, Peter Rudman argues that the development of the concept of prime numbers could only have come about after the concept of division, which he dates to after 10,000 BC, with prime numbers probably not being understood until about 500 BC. He also writes that “no attempt has been made to explain why a tally of something should exhibit multiples of two, prime numbers between 10 and 20, and some numbers that are almost multiples of 10.” The Ishango bone, according to scholar Alexander Marshack, may have influenced the later development of mathematics in Egypt as, like some entries on the Ishango bone, Egyptian arithmetic also made use of multiplication by 2; this, however, is disputed.
Predynastic Egyptians of the 5th millennium BC pictorially represented geometric designs. It has been claimed that megalithic monuments in England and Scotland, dating from the 3rd millennium BC, incorporate geometric ideas such as circles, ellipses, and Pythagorean triples in their design.
All of the above are disputed however, and the currently oldest undisputed mathematical usage is in Babylonian and dynastic Egyptian sources. Thus it took human beings at least 45,000 years from the attainment of behavioral modernity and language (generally thought to be a long time before that) to develop mathematics as such.
Babylonian mathematics refers to any mathematics of the people of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) from the days of the early Sumerians through the Hellenistic period almost to the dawn of Christianity. It is named Babylonian mathematics due to the central role of Babylon as a place of study. Later under the Arab Empire, Mesopotamia, especially Baghdad, once again became an important center of study for Islamic mathematics.
In contrast to the sparsity of sources in Egyptian mathematics, our knowledge of Babylonian mathematics is derived from more than 400 clay tablets unearthed since the 1850s. Written in Cuneiform script, tablets were inscribed whilst the clay was moist, and baked hard in an oven or by the heat of the sun. Some of these appear to be graded homework.
The earliest evidence of written mathematics dates back to the ancient Sumerians, who built the earliest civilization in Mesopotamia. They developed a complex system of metrology from 3000 BC. From around 2500 BC onwards, the Sumerians wrote multiplication tables on clay tablets and dealt with geometrical exercises and division problems. The earliest traces of the Babylonian numerals also date back to this period.
The majority of recovered clay tablets date from 1800 to 1600 BC, and cover topics which include fractions, algebra, quadratic and cubic equations, and the calculation of regular reciprocal pairs. The tablets also include multiplication tables and methods for solving linear and quadratic equations. The Babylonian tablet YBC 7289 gives an approximation of √2 accurate to five decimal places.
Babylonian mathematics were written using a sexagesimal (base-60) numeral system. From this derives the modern day usage of 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 360 (60 x 6) degrees in a circle, as well as the use of seconds and minutes of arc to denote fractions of a degree. Babylonian advances in mathematics were facilitated by the fact that 60 has many divisors. Also, unlike the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, the Babylonians had a true place-value system, where digits written in the left column represented larger values, much as in the decimal system. They lacked, however, an equivalent of the decimal point, and so the place value of a symbol often had to be inferred from the context. On the other hand, this “defect” is equivalent to the modern-day usage of floating point arithmetic; moreover, the use of base 60 means that any reciprocal of an integer which is a multiple of divisors of 60 necessarily has a finite expansion to the base 60. (In decimal arithmetic, only reciprocals of multiples of 2 and 5 have finite decimal expansions.) Accordingly, there is a strong argument that arithmetic Old Babylonian style is considerably more sophisticated than that of current usage.
The interpretation of Plimpton 322 was the source of controversy for many years after its significance in the context of Pythagorean triangles was realized. In historical context, inheritance problems involving equal-area subdivision of triangular and trapezoidal fields (with integer length sides) quickly convert into the need to calculate the square root of 2, or to solve the “Pythagorean equation” in integers: rather than considering a square as the sum of two squares, we can equivalently consider a square as a difference of two squares. After division, (c-a)(c+a)= bb becomes the product of two rational numbers giving 1: (c/b-a/b)(c/b+a/b) = 1. This is easily solved by consulting a table of reciprocal pairs. Solutions of the original equation are thus parametrized by the choice of a rational number x, from which Pythagorean-triple right-triangles can easily be constructed by integer-scaling a right-triangle with sides of length 2x, xx-1, xx+1 (should a contemporary mathematician desire to do so). All Pythagorean triples arise in this way, and the examples provided in Plimpton 322 involve some quite large numbers, by modern standards, such as (4601, 4800, 6649) in decimal notation.
Egyptian mathematics refers to mathematics written in the Egyptian language. From the Hellenistic period, Greek replaced Egyptian as the written language of Egyptian scholars. Mathematical study in Egypt later continued under the Arab Empire as part of Islamic mathematics, when Arabic became the written language of Egyptian scholars.
The most extensive Egyptian mathematical text is the Rhind papyrus (sometimes also called the Ahmes Papyrus after its author), dated to c. 1650 BC but likely a copy of an older document from the Middle Kingdom of about 2000-1800 BC. It is an instruction manual for students in arithmetic and geometry. In addition to giving area formulas and methods for multiplication, division and working with unit fractions, it also contains evidence of other mathematical knowledge, including composite and prime numbers; arithmetic, geometric and harmonic means; and simplistic understandings of both the Sieve of Eratosthenes and perfect number theory (namely, that of the number 6). It also shows how to solve first order linear equations as well as arithmetic and geometric series.
Another significant Egyptian mathematical text is the Moscow papyrus, also from the Middle Kingdom period, dated to c. 1890 BC. It consists of what are today called word problems or story problems, which were apparently intended as entertainment. One problem is considered to be of particular importance because it gives a method for finding the volume of a frustum: “If you are told: A truncated pyramid of 6 for the vertical height by 4 on the base by 2 on the top. You are to square this 4, result 16. You are to double 4, result 8. You are to square 2, result 4. You are to add the 16, the 8, and the 4, result 28. You are to take one third of 6, result 2. You are to take 28 twice, result 56. See, it is 56. You will find it right.”
Greek mathematics refers to the mathematics written in the Greek language from the time of Thales of Miletus (~600 BC) to the closure of the Academy of Athens in 529 AD. Greek mathematicians lived in cities spread over the entire Eastern Mediterranean, from Italy to North Africa, but were united by culture and language. Greek mathematics of the period following Alexander the Great is sometimes called Hellenistic mathematics.
Greek mathematics was much more sophisticated than the mathematics that had been developed by earlier cultures. All surviving records of pre-Greek mathematics show the use of inductive reasoning, that is, repeated observations used to establish rules of thumb. Greek mathematicians, by contrast, used deductive reasoning. The Greeks used logic to derive conclusions from definitions and axioms, and used mathematical rigor to prove them.
Greek mathematics is thought to have begun with Thales of Miletus (c. 624–c.546 BC) and Pythagoras of Samos (c. 582–c. 507 BC). Although the extent of the influence is disputed, they were probably inspired by Egyptian and Babylonian mathematics. According to legend, Pythagoras traveled to Egypt to learn mathematics, geometry, and astronomy from Egyptian priests.
Thales used geometry to solve problems such as calculating the height of pyramids and the distance of ships from the shore. He is credited with the first use of deductive reasoning applied to geometry, by deriving four corollaries to Thales’ Theorem. As a result, he has been hailed as the first true mathematician and the first known individual to whom a mathematical discovery has been attributed. Pythagoras established the Pythagorean School, whose doctrine it was that mathematics ruled the universe and whose motto was “All is number”. It was the Pythagoreans who coined the term “mathematics”, and with whom the study of mathematics for its own sake begins. The Pythagoreans are credited with the first proof of the Pythagorean theorem, though the statement of the theorem has a long history, and with the proof of the existence of irrational numbers.
Plato (428/427 BC – 348/347 BC) is important in the history of mathematics for inspiring and guiding others. His Platonic Academy, in Athens, became the mathematical center of the world in the 4th century BC, and it was from this school that the leading mathematicians of the day, such as Eudoxus of Cnidus, came. Plato also discussed the foundations of mathematics, clarified some of the definitions (e.g. that of a line as “breadthless length”), and reorganized the assumptions. The analytic method is ascribed to Plato, while a formula for obtaining Pythagorean triples bears his name.
Eudoxus (408–c.355 BC) developed the method of exhaustion, a precursor of modern integration and a theory of ratios that avoided the problem of incommensurable magnitudes. The former allowed the calculations of areas and volumes of curvilinear figures, while the latter enabled subsequent geometers to make significant advances in geometry. Though he made no specific technical mathematical discoveries, Aristotle (384—c.322 BC) contributed significantly to the development of mathematics by laying the foundations of logic.
In the 3rd century BC, the premier center of mathematical education and research was the Musaeum of Alexandria. It was there that Euclid (c. 300 BC) taught, and wrote the Elements, widely considered the most successful and influential textbook of all time. The Elements introduced mathematical rigor through the axiomatic method and is the earliest example of the format still used in mathematics today, that of definition, axiom, theorem, and proof. Although most of the contents of the Elements were already known, Euclid arranged them into a single, coherent logical framework. The Elements was known to all educated people in the West until the middle of the 20th century and its contents are still taught in geometry classes today. In addition to the familiar theorems of Euclidean geometry, the Elements was meant as an introductory textbook to all mathematical subjects of the time, such as number theory, algebra and solid geometry, including proofs that the square root of two is irrational and that there are infinitely many prime numbers. Euclid also wrote extensively on other subjects, such as conic sections, optics, spherical geometry, and mechanics, but only half of his writings survive.
The first woman mathematician recorded by history was Hypatia of Alexandria (AD 350 – 415). She succeeded her father as Librarian at the Great Library and wrote many works on applied mathematics. Because of a political dispute, the Christian community in Alexandria punished her, presuming she was involved, by stripping her naked and scraping off her skin with clamshells (some say roofing tiles).
Archimedes (c.287–212 BC) of Syracuse, widely considered the greatest mathematician of antiquity, used the method of exhaustion to calculate the area under the arc of a parabola with the summation of an infinite series, in a manner not too dissimilar from modern calculus. He also showed one could use the method of exhaustion to calculate the value of π with as much precision as desired, and obtained the most accurate value of π then known, 310⁄71 < π < 310⁄70. He also studied the spiral bearing his name, obtained formulas for the volumes of surfaces of revolution (paraboloid, ellipsoid, hyperboloid), and an ingenious system for expressing very large numbers. While he is also known for his contributions to physics and several advanced mechanical devices, Archimedes himself placed far greater value on the products of his thought and general mathematical principles. He regarded as his greatest achievement his finding of the surface area and volume of a sphere, which he obtained by proving these are 2/3 the surface area and volume a cylinder circumscribing the sphere.
Apollonius of Perga (c. 262-190 BC) made significant advances to the study of conic sections, showing that one can obtain all three varieties of conic section by varying the angle of the plane that cuts a double-napped cone. He also coined the terminology in use today for conic sections, namely parabola (“place beside” or “comparison”), “ellipse” (“deficiency”), and “hyperbola” (“a throw beyond”). His work Conics is one of the best known and preserved mathematical works from antiquity, and in it he derives many theorems concerning conic sections that would prove invaluable to later mathematicians and astronomers studying planetary motion, such as Isaac Newton. While neither Apollonius nor any other Greek mathematicians made the leap to coordinate geometry, Apollonius’ treatment of curves is in some ways similar to the modern treatment, and some of his work seems to anticipate the development of analytical geometry by Descartes some 1800 years later.
Around the same time, Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c. 276-194 BC) devised the Sieve of Eratosthenes for finding prime numbers. The 3rd century BC is generally regarded as the “Golden Age” of Greek mathematics, with advances in pure mathematics henceforth in relative decline. Nevertheless, in the centuries that followed significant advances were made in applied mathematics, most notably trigonometry, largely to address the needs of astronomers. Hipparchus of Nicaea (c. 190-120 BC) is considered the founder of trigonometry for compiling the first known trigonometric table, and to him is also due the systematic use of the 360 degree circle. Heron of Alexandria (c. 10–70 AD) is credited with Heron’s formula for finding the area of a scalene triangle and with being the first to recognize the possibility of negative numbers possessing square roots. Menelaus of Alexandria (c. 100 AD) pioneered spherical trigonometry through Menelaus’ theorem. The most complete and influential trigonometric work of antiquity is the Almagest of Ptolemy (c. AD 90-168), a landmark astronomical treatise whose trigonometric tables would be used by astronomers for the next thousand years. Ptolemy is also credited with Ptolemy’s theorem for deriving trigonometric quantities, and the most accurate value of π outside of China until the medieval period, 3.1416.
Following a period of stagnation after Ptolemy, the period between 250 and 350 AD is sometimes referred to as the “Silver Age” of Greek mathematics. During this period, Diophantus made significant advances in algebra, particularly indeterminate analysis, which is also known as “Diophantine analysis”. The study of Diophantine equations and Diophantine approximations is a significant area of research to this day. His main work was the Arithmetica, a collection of 150 algebraic problems dealing with exact solutions to determinate and indeterminate equations. The Arithmetica had a significant influence on later mathematicians, such as Pierre de Fermat, who arrived at his famous Last Theorem after trying to generalize a problem he had read in the Arithmetica (that of dividing a square into two squares). Diophantus also made significant advances in notation, the Arithmetica being the first instance of algebraic symbolism and syncopation.
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