If you don’t happen to know the definition of Sexagesimal (Wolfram, Wikipedia), you might think it could be some strange kind of activity that goes on at festivals like Burning Man (Wired, Wikipedia). If you happen to be a computer geek, you might have guessed it has something to do with numbers (as in binary, hex, etc.), and you would be right. If you’re a numbers geek or a mathematician, then you probably already know the cool research that this post is going to be describing.

But first, here’s a bit of review for those who are neither numbers geeks nor mathematicians. You were probably taught in school that there are different ways of counting. We use “base 10”, but there are other number systems. For example, computers are based on binary (base 2), and there is a group of people who would like to revolutionize the world by using duodecimal (base 12). Here’s a nice video that explains all about “Base Number Systems.”

Well, the ancient Babylonian’s used sexagesimal (base 60), and some new research suggests that they not only beat the ancient Greeks at inventing Trigonometry (Wikipedia), they also may have been able to do it better. Here’s a video and some press releases about the research that was conducted by Daniel F. Mansfield and N.J. Wildberger from the University of New South Wales and published in Historia Mathematica.

Mathematical mystery of ancient Babylonian clay tablet solved (Press Release, University of New South Wales)
Plimpton 322 is Babylonian exact sexagesimal trigonometry (Daniel F. Mansfield & N.J. Wildberger, Historia Mathematica)

Here are more videos and articles about the research.

This 3,700-Year-Old Babylonian Clay Tablet Just Changed The History of Maths (David Sield, Science Alert)
Math whizzes of ancient Babylon figured out forerunner of calculus (Ron Cowen, AAAS Science Magazine)
Ancient Babylonian astronomers calculated Jupiter’s position from the area under a time-velocity graph (Mathieu Ossendrijver, AAAS Science)

Of course, as is the case with all “real” science, there can and should be some healthy skepticism. Here’s an article from National Geographic that covers some other perspectives about the research.

Ancient Tablet May Show Earliest Use of This Advanced Math (Sarah Gibbens, National Geographic)

No matter what, sexagesimal is neat stuff!

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