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The birth of mathematics, rediscovered

In New York, for a short time only, a beautiful exhibition devoted to the birth of mathematics on cuneiform tablets in ancient Babylon, a millennium before the Greeks.

Old Babylonian multiplication table

The Long Tablet of Gen-Gal, a multiplication table.

I touch on this story in The Information: how this first mathematical flowering vanished into the sands, only to be rediscovered in modern times. The pioneering scholar Otto Neugebauer said in 1949:

Our task can properly be compared with restoring the history of mathematics from a few torn pages which have accidentally survived the destruction of a great library.

In some ways the old Babylonian mathematics was quite different, more in tune with modern sensibilities, than the mathematics of the Greeks, who were starting from scratch a thousand years later. This exhibit, so beautifully curated by Alexander Jones and Christine Proust at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, takes your breath away. The memory of the species is so short. Here is its beginning, carved in tablets of clay.

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