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Billones A-9

Old Babylonian 'Quadratic' Problems

Old Babylonian mathematicians were much taken with problems involving two unknowns and square

roots, what we would term 'quadratic' problems. These problems usually involved finding lengths,

widths or diagonals of rectangles. The simplest example would be a problem giving the sum of the

length and width of a rectangle (or field) and its area. The problem is to find the length and the width.

So we might read, 'Length plus width is 50. Area is 600. What are the length and the width?' In all of

Old Babylonian mathematics, it is understood that the length (u) is at least as large as the width

(sag).

A modern student would probably write down the formulas and , solve the first as,

say, , substitute for w in the second equation to get , and then

solve the quadratic equation for l using the quadratic formula to obtain , from

which it follows that . The Old Babylonian procedure was rather different.

First, it is important to note that Mesopotamian was largely algorithmic in style. That is, instead of

writing down a formula and substituting particular values for the variables, Old Babylonian

mathematicians concentrated on following a particular procedure. The procedure for the type of

problem given above was as follows:

Step 1: Take half the sum of the length and width (we'll call this the half-sum): 25

Step 2: Square the half-sum: 625.

Step 3: Subtract the area: 25

Step 4: Take the square root: 5

Length is half-sum + square root: 30

Width is half-sum - square root: 20.

Another popular type of problem is where the student is given the difference of the length and the

width as well as the area. So we would read, 'The length exceeds the width by 10. The area is 600.

What are the length and the width?' The procedure for this type of problem is very similar.

Step 1: Take half the difference of the length and width (the half-difference): 5

Step 2: Square the half-difference: 25

Step 3: Add the area: 625

Step 4: Take the square root: 25

Length is square root + half-difference: 30

Width is square root - half-difference: 20.

Hundreds of these 'rectangular' problems are known. In many cases, just the problem is stated, but in

others the procedure is given so that we can see how they solved the particular types of problems.

Interestingly, we have no examples of the two basic types given above. They must have been

considered too easy to bother writing them down. However, in the case of more complicated types of

problems (such as being given the difference of the length and width and the area minus the square

of the difference) the first step is to reduce the problem to one of the two standard types above and

then solve it with the standard procedure.

The first major analysis of Babylonian rectangular problems was by Solomon Gandz

1

in 1937, in a

massive paper in Osiris. He divided Mesopotamian quadratic problems into nine types, of which the

simple ones we gave above are Types I and II. In that paper, Gandz also speculated as to how the

Babylonians derived their procedures and noted the similarities between their approaches and the

procedures of Diophantus, contrasting these with both the Arabic and modern approaches.

Carlyle's Method

The Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) developed a geometrical solution

of quadratic equations based upon coordinate geometry. In his early years Carlyle

was a mathematics teacher, and among his accomplishments was the translation of

Legendre's 1794 revision of Elements into English. This translation, as later

revised by Charles Davies in 1851 and J. H. van Amringe in 1885, went through 33

American editions [3, p. 338]. Thus the Legendre revision rather than the original

Euclid became the pedagogical basis for the study of Elements in the United

States.

Carlyle's method, according to Eves [3, p. 61], appeared in the popular Elements

of Geometry of Sir John Leslie (1766-1832). Leslie remarked: "The solution of this

important problem... was suggested to me by Mr. Thomas Carlyle, an ingenious

young mathematician, and formerly my pupil."

Carlyle's method, as described by Eves, provides the solutions to the equation

x2 + bx + c = 0 by considering the points of intersection of a particular circle with

the x-axis. Graph the circle that has a diameter with endpoints (0,1) and ( ? 6, c).

If there are two real solutions, the circle will intersect the x-axis at two points. The

abscissas of these two points are the solutions. Figure 2 illustrates this method for

the general case. If only one real solution (a double solution) exists, the circle will

be tangent to the x-axis, and the double solution is the abscissa of the point of

tangency. If there are no real solutions, the circle will not intersect the x-axis.

The verification of Carlyle's method is based upon the fact that the equation of

the circle is x2 +y2 + bx - (1 + c)y + c = 0. Setting y

= 0, we find that the abscis?

sas of the intersections of the circle with the x-axis are given by x2 + bx + c = 0,

and so are the roots of the given equation.

Pythagorean Theorem

The Pythagorean theorem is named after the Greek mathematician Pythagoras (ca. 570 BCca. 495

BC), who by tradition is credited with its proof,

[2][3]

although it is often argued that knowledge of the

theorem predates him. There is evidence that Babylonian mathematiciansunderstood the formula,

although there is little surviving evidence that they used it in a mathematical

framework.

[4][5]

Mesopotamian, Indianand Chinese mathematicians have all been known for

independently discovering the result, some even providing proofs of special cases.

The theorem has numerous proofs, possibly the most of any mathematical theorem. These are very

diverse, including both geometric proofs and algebraic proofs, with some dating back thousands of

years. The theorem can be generalized in various ways, including higher-dimensional spaces, to

spaces that are not Euclidean, to objects that are not right triangles, and indeed, to objects that are

not triangles at all, but n-dimensional solids. The Pythagorean theorem has attracted interest outside

mathematics as a symbol of mathematical abstruseness, mystique, or intellectual power; popular

references in literature, plays, musicals, songs, stamps and

The Pythagorean Theorem was known long before Pythagoras, but he may well have been the first to

prove it.

[6]

In any event, the proof attributed to him is very simple, and is called a proof by

rearrangement.

The two large squares shown in the figure each contain four identical triangles, and the only

difference between the two large squares is that the triangles are arranged differently. Therefore, the

white space within each of the two large squares must have equal area. Equating the area of the

white space yields the Pythagorean Theorem, Q.E.D.

[7]

That Pythagoras originated this very simple proof is sometimes inferred from the writings of the later

Greek philosopher and mathematicianProclus.

[8]

Several other proofs of this theorem are described

below, but this is known as the Pythagorean one.

As pointed out in the introduction, if c denotes the length of the hypotenuse and a and b denote the

lengths of the other two sides, the Pythagorean theorem can be expressed as the Pythagorean

equation:

If the length of both a and b are known, then c can be calculated as follows:

If the length of hypotenuse c and one side (a or b) are known, then the length of the other side

can be calculated with the following equations:

or

The Pythagorean equation relates the sides of a right triangle in a simple way, so that if

the lengths of any two sides are known the length of the third side can be found.

Another corollary of the theorem is that in any right triangle, the hypotenuse is greater

than any one of the other sides, but less than their sum.

A generalization of this theorem is the law of cosines, which allows the computation of

the length of any side of any triangle, given the lengths of the other two sides and the

angle between them. If the angle between the other sides is a right angle, the law of

cosines reduces to the Pythagorean equation.

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