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Mathematical Treasures - Plimpton 322

Frank J. Swetz and Victor J. Katz

Plimpton 322, an Old Babylonian tablet from Larsa, has four columns of numbers, two of which, most experts believe, contain, in each of the fifteen rows, two of the three numbers in a Pythagorean triple.  This tablet was first analyzed by Otto Neugebauer and Abraham Sachs in their 1945 book, Mathematical Cuneiform Texts (New Haven, American Oriental Society) There have been numerous discussions of this tablet since that time.  In particular, two articles, "Sherlock Holmes in Babylon," (1980) by R. Creighton Buck, and  "Words and Pictures:  New Light on Plimpton 322," (2002) by Eleanor Robson are included in Marlow Anderson, Victor Katz, & Robin Wilson, eds., Sherlock Holmes in Babylon and Other Tales of Mathematical History (Washington: Mathematical Association of America, 2004), pp. 5–26.  Further references to the literature are included in those two articles.  More recently, Jöran Friberg, in A Remarkable Collection of Babylonian Mathematics Texts (New York:  Springer, 2007) (pp. 433–452) has challenged the interpretation of the numbers on the tablet as parts of Pythagorean triples.

Convergence co-editor Frank Swetz holds Plimpton 322. Closeup of Plimpton 322 as held by Frank Swetz in 2008.

Frank Swetz, Convergence co-editor, views the Plimpton 322 tablet at Columbia University Library in 2008. The tablet can easily be held within two hands.

Index to Mathematical Treasures

Frank J. Swetz and Victor J. Katz, "Mathematical Treasures - Plimpton 322," Convergence (January 2011)

Mathematical Treasures from the Smith and Plimpton Collections at Columbia University