Reassessing an ancient artifact

3:32pm, January 29, 2001

The famous Mesopotamian clay tablet known as Plimpton 322 has tantalized historians of mathematics ever since its discovery more than 60 years ago. Scholars have considered the tablet to be an anomalous mathematical exercise well in advance of its time. They have variously interpreted the cryptic columns of numbers, written in the wedge-shaped script called cuneiform, as a trigonometric table or a sophisticated scheme for generating Pythagorean triples. A Pythagorean triple is a set of three whole numbers, a, b, and c, such that a2 + b2 = c2.

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