The Mythical Pythagoras

“Numbers rule the universe,” said Pythagoras. Living 500 years before Jesus, 900 years before the concept of zero was invented, and 1,700 years before the Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3) was brought to the West, Pythagoras laid out the critical foundation of geometrical connections – that a2 + b2 = c2 – and concluded the fundamental relationship between a right triangle and a square. Yet he is also most memorable for his conviction that numbers are separate beings that unlock the true nature of the universe; a kind of wonder that still rings true until now, if not stronger.

Just recently, I learned how the Indians and Sumerians used more practical math to solve mundane day to day problems, like trading issues and counting wages, the opposite of some Greek thinkers and philosophers who tend to glorify numbers as god-like. Yet what the Indians and Sumerians produced were maths that are more straightforward, cleaner, and accurate. The discovery of a Babylonian tablet gives us trigonometric table more accurate than any today and preceding Pythagoras’ by a thousand years. And it was these people who built ancient architectures that still blow our mind away and really tempt us to assume they’re aliens-made. An Indian science historian writer concluded that the Greeks complicate the practical and in doing so, missing the answer. It’s a controversial statement and even a bit bogus.

But it still spurs me into thinking: what if we had gone unto this simpler thinking following the steps of the Mayans, Sumerians, and Indians? What if we moved into solving our daily problems and eternal questions with mathematical concepts and thinkings that were the legacies of these ancient thinkers?

Perhaps there is a strong reason these concepts didn’t survive; they didn’t translate to more advanced maths. After centuries of trials and experiments, concepts moving through different languages and cultures, some of them were adapted to more complex and abstract problems, and others stayed still, buried.

Or perhaps—and here’s my biggest point—we focus on one side of history. We focus on the legacies brought by the Greeks, spread them throughout the world through a more Euro-centric empiricism and storytelling; the wars and colonialism and all. We forgot to remember the legacies, treasures, and wisdom brought by other ancient cultures; the civilizations that gave us the concept of zero, who built pyramids and other megalithic architectures. And in doing so, we’re missing an answer.

It’s an interesting thought experiment. Because we can’t change history but we can always change how we remember and more importantly, retell the history. That is, looking at the stories and wisdom that snuck underneath piles and piles of histories written by a single winner.

In fact, a bit of background story, it’s a funny story how I got unto this nook of thinking. I initially wanted to write about Pythagoras, the man who we remember as a mathematician who was actually, a religious cult reader. It wasn’t long until I found out that he is pretty darn close to being a mythical man. He didn’t write anything, he was said to be the son of Apollo with golden thigh, and he built and led a cult who believed that farting means your soul leaving your body. So who wrote the Pythagorean theorem and how was it discovered? Really, it’s even hard for me now to believe that any quotes from him are true.

By all means, I’m not a scientist. Just someone who happened to stumble upon these funny inconsistent stories, then filled the gaps with a dash of speculations and a lot of meanderings. But my takeaway is this: how we remember history matters. It gives us a bit more balance at a time when we are still being bombarded consistently with one-sided stories. And this absolutely applies to all facets of life.

To conclude, here’s a bit of history of maths, a beautiful animation on the shape of math, and a contemplation about the number zero. And here’s a more light-hearted version about the life of Pythagoras.

P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase.


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