Saudi Aramco World: January/February 2014 - page 8

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Saudi Aramco World
MATHEMATICS
The Old Babylonian period (ca. 2000–1600
BCE
) was a time of intense scribal activity; we know the most about
scribal education. Much of what we know today about Mesopotamian mathematics comes from the cuneiform tools and textbooks
that instructors used to teach their students, and the provision of practical mathematical and metrological skills necessary for
scribal bureaucracy. Mesopotamian mathematics used the sexagesimal system of notation, with calculations based on the number
60 rather than the base-10 system that we use today. The concept or notation of zero was not established until much later by math-
ematicians of the early Islamic world.
Shown with:
Mathematical tables inscribed on a clay cylinder from the Old Babylonian period, ca. 2000–1600
BCE
, Iraq. (13.9 h. x 11.2
cm. dia. / 5½ x 4½
"
) This object is one of the earliest known collections of mathematical tables written on a cylinder. It was suspended
with a cord or held upright on a post that passed through the hole at the center. The scribe could spin the cylinder to the column he
wanted to read. The text begins with a table of reciprocals and continues with 37 separate multiplication tables.
“If you look at this tool, which is a kind of multiplication table, in spite of various views to the contrary, I do believe that the kind of basis of
understanding that you get from actual drill and mastery [of times tables] is an important thing…. One of the beauties of the structure of math-
ematics is that it becomes multi-layered, so that at any moment you create a degree of mastery that gives you a capacity to now think about
the next thing. So if you never establish foundations, if you never establish mastery at a foundational level, it inhibits your capacity to think
about the next things. When one thinks about what mathematics is actually about at a fundamental level, it really does go back to thinking
about counting,… about measurement, to thinking about shape, and understanding those in increasingly sophisticated ways…. The way that
they connect other sorts of phenomena … that you see today in mathematics you see reflected in this object right here. Living without zero is
difficult, but obviously, people were able to do a great deal without it, which is really kind of impressive.”
MATHEMATICIAN
Robert Zimmer joined the University of Chicago in 1977 and became the
University’s 13th president in 2006. He is known for establishing the University of
Chicago’s “Zimmer Program,” which involves understanding of symmetry and the
relationship of geometry and topology to certain algebraic structures.
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