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April 08, 2017

Sophie Miller

A Brief History of Math

Topics: STEM

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It’s Mathematics Awareness Month, and here at ThinkFun we’re always thinking about math and the importance of learning. While sometimes math can seem boring or abstract, it plays a key role in so many of the things that we do every day. And it took a long time to get to where we are in the mathematical world! Here are a few of the key milestones in math history.

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The Lebombo Bone

Whereas now we can use our calculators to figure out the answers to even the most complicated math problems, it took a long time to develop this kind of technology. In the meantime, different societies came up with different innovative ways to keep track of numbers and figure out the answers to complicated mathematical questions. The oldest known mathematical device is from over 37,000 years ago – the Lebombo bone. Discovered in the Lebombo mountain region of current-day Swaziland, the Lebombo bone is the leg-bone of a baboon that its creator engraved with 29 notch marks at even intervals. The Ta Neter Foundation reports that the stick was used either to track “lunar cycles, or used merely as a measuring stick.” However it was used, it is the earliest evidence of humans figuring out how to keep track of numbers.

Euclid’s Elements

Today, one of the most common ways that we learn about math is from a math textbook, and there are hundreds of different kinds out there. But back in 300 BCE, a mathematician named Euclid had just published the very first math textbook, called Elements. Known as the “Father of Geometry,” Euclid arranged the mathematical findings of every mathematician who had come before him and presented the first comprehensive look at the mathematical discoveries of his day. One crazy fact about Elements is that while it is a math textbook, it doesn’t contain any numbers! The book presents mathematical theory without the use of actual numerical measurements. You can find the full text of Euclid’s Elements here.

The Discovery of Pi

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According to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the ancient Babylonians are the first people who we know figured out the basic concept of pi. Records of their society show that they knew that the circumference, or distance around the edge of, a circle was equal to roughly three times its diameter, or the distance across it. Many years later, around 250 BCE, a philosopher named Archimedes developed a more accurate way of determining the value of pi. Can you figure out how he did it using this sketch?

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Modern Day Math

While all of this math history comes from long before our time, there is still much to be discovered about numbers and the way they work. People are still making new mathematical discoveries all the time…the next one could be by you! Who are your favorite mathematicians? What are discoveries that they made that we still use today or learn in school?

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