Thursday, December 30, 2004

Apple #19: Pythagoras


Something made me think of the Pythagorean theorem. I think a triangle in the corner of a sign over the highway did it. And I thought, but what about the guy who came up with it? What about him?
  • Pythagoras was born in 569 BC in Ionia, or essentially, Greece.
  • He had a big birthmark on his thigh.
  • Apparently his family was pretty well-off because he did a lot of traveling with his father and was taught by mathematicians and philosophers. He could play the lyre and recite Homer.
  • One of his teachers told him to go to Egypt to learn more about math, so he did. While he was there, he talked to lots of priests and got very into religion, and then he was accepted into the priesthood at one temple. His beliefs included maintaining the secrecy of the priesthood, striving for purity, and refusing to eat fava beans or to wear clothes made of animal skins.
  • Also while he was in Egypt, the king of Persia invaded and, because Pythagoras was friends with the Greek guy sort of in charge of Egypt at the time, Pythagoras was taken as a prisoner of war and shipped off to Babylon.
  • While in Babylon, as a prisoner, he was instructed in the religious rites of the Babylonians, and he also reached what one historian called "the acme of perfection in arithmetic and music and the other mathematical sciences taught by the Babylonians."
  • After the rulers who were fighting each other both died, two years later, Pythagoras left Babylon and went home.
  • In his home town of Samos and elsewhere, he founded multiple schools of philosophy and religion. There, he instructed people in the beliefs he'd developed while in Egypt and Babylon, plus his deepest-held belief, which is that "at its deepest level, reality is mathematical in nature."
  • He attributed lots of characteristics to numbers. He said that some numbers were masculine and some were feminine. He also correlated certain tones on stringed instruments with whole numbers, and developed the foundations of the mathematical theories of music.
  • His famous theorem of geometry (the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides) was known to the Babylonians, but Pythagoras was the first to prove it is correct.
  • He was also a big student of astronomy, and a crater on the moon is named after him.
  • He thought that the Earth was a sphere at the center of the Universe. We can't be right about everything.
  • He was foremost a philosopher, and as he got older, he was recognized as a highly public figure, and his presence was requested many places. He was basically a celebrity philosopher.
  • It's not certain how or even exactly when he died, though it probably happened around 475 BC. Which means he was 94 years old.
  • After he died, his Pythagorean Society got very politicized and split into many factions. Soon his Society was suppressed, meeting houses were burned, and 50 or 60 of his followers were killed.


The University of St. Andrews' School of Mathematics TURNBULL MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive, biographical entry on Pythagoras

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