of the talks by dr. Eleanor Robson

Groningen, 3-II and 5-II 1998

Dr. Eleanor Robson (Oriental Institute, University of Oxford)
New Approaches to Old Babylonian Mathematics: a Case Study
Tuesday February 3, 1998 16.15 - 17.15 uur
Groningen, Instituut Wiskunde en Informatica (Blauwborgje 3), zaal RC 150.


The nearly 4,000-year-old lump of mud called Plimpton 322 is undoubtedly the most famous mathematical tablet from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Since its publication in 1945 it has been discussed in the 'Babylonian' chapter of almost every general history of mathematics and in many specialist works. There have been two main schools of interpretation: either that it is a sophisticated listing of so-called Pythagorean triples (dating to some 1,500 years before the supposed date of Pythagoras), or that it is an even more breath-taking trigonometric table (from around two millennia before angle measurement developed in the Classical world). In this talk I show how new scholarly approaches to Mesopotamian mathematics over the last decade, particularly to technical language and conceptual content, enable Plimpton 322 to be viewed not as a freakish anomaly in the history of early mathematics but as the epitome of Mesopotamian mathematical culture at its best.

Dr. Eleanor Robson (Oriental Institute, University of Oxford)
Mathematics from Mesopotamia
Thursday Februari 5, 1998 15.15 uur
Groningen, COMERS gebouw (Oude Boteringestraat 23), zaal 1.


In the late eighties research in Mesopotamian mathematics entered a new phase. The focus shifted from the contents and magnitude of the early mathematical knowledge to the 'how' and 'why' of this knowledge. How did Mesopotamians approach mathematical problems, and what was the role of these problems in Mesopotamian society? We could call this an anthropology of mathematics. Dr. Eleanor Robson has made an important contribution to this new direction in the history of Mesopotamian mathematics in her dissertation Old Babylonian Coefficient Lists and the Wider Context of Mathematics in Ancient Mesopotamia, 2100-1600 BC (forthcoming soon at the Oxford University Press). The lecture is open to all interested. No mathematical knowledge will be presumed.