Monday Morning Math: Pythagoras


This week’s mathematician is someone you have probably heard about, although it turns out very little is known for certain. 

The mathematician is Pythagoras.  

Pythagoras was probably born in Greece, on the island of Samos, over 2500 years ago (570 BCE, plus or minus a few decades).  His mother was from that island, and his father Mnesarchus was a merchant.  Pythagoras would travel with him sometimes when he was a child, and when he was an adult he studied mathematics with Thales, another now-famous mathematician.   

After many years (decades) of study, Pythagoras formed a group known as the Pythagoreans, who followed a strict vegan diet and believed that everything was essentially a number.  There was an inner circle of mathematicians and an outer circle, and there is some indication that the groups were equally welcoming to women and men. It is not possible to distinguish who proved any one result (because secrecy was the name of the game rather than publishing), but there were important results from this group related to music and geometry.  

Two of the most significant results attributed to Pythagoras are the Pythagorean Theorem (written in geometric terms that a square on the hypotenuse of a right triangle has the same area as the sum of squares on each of the two legs) and that the square root of 2 is irrational (written in geometric terms that the side and the diagonal of a square are incommensurable, meaning there’s no teeny tiny amount that fits into both an integer number of times.  There are stories that someone figured this out and was killed, either for figuring this out or for telling people outside the Pythagoreans, but like the rest of what I’ve written this was a story – everything we supposedly know about Pythagoras comes from reports well after his death, so at best this is educated guesswork.

Etching on the wall of Peckham Hall, our math and science building. Not seen is the QED in the lower right corner, as it was also in darkness when I took the photo just now

Finally, the video below, from BBC learning, is under 5 minutes and fun to watch, though it does start off with an excited “Pythagoras!” that will get the attention of anyone around you.

Other sources:

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