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Mathematics in Mesopotamia



Mathematics in Mesopotamia
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     Flesch-Kincaid grade level:   8.3

Vocabulary
     challenging words:    left-most, right-most, sexagesimal, unsolved, digit, dynasty, notation, banking, critical, numeral, subtraction, mathematics, civilization, unit, reign, solution


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Mathematics in Mesopotamia
By Vickie Chao
  

1     Do you like mathematics? No matter what your answer may be, you are not alone. Mathematics is a challenging subject. Its basic concepts began to emerge when the world's very first civilization took root in Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago. Back then, the Sumerians developed a unique numeral system, using a base of sixty. In scientific terms, that system is called a sexagesimal system. Since the Sumerians counted things with sixty as a unit, they had the same symbol () for 1 and 60. And they would express 70 () as, literally, the sum of 60 () and
10 (). Likewise, they would express 125 () as the sum of two units of 60 () and one unit of 5 ().
 
2     Today, our decimal numeral system uses ten, not sixty, as a base unit. But that is not to say that the Sumerians' invention became obsolete. As a matter of fact, it still plays a critical role in our everyday life. For example, have you ever wondered why an hour has 60 minutes and a minute has 60 seconds? Have you ever thought about why a full circle has 360 degrees? As it turns out, that was how the Sumerians kept track of their time. And that was how they defined a full circle.
 
3     When the Sumerians first came up with their numerals, they did not have a specific symbol for zero. If they needed to inscribe, say, 506 on a clay tablet, they would simply put a blank space between the symbols of 5 () and 6 (). This way of denoting zero could be quite confusing and problematic. Neither the Sumerians nor other people in Mesopotamia (most notably, the Babylonians) were able to come up with a solution at the time. This issue would remain unsolved until around 500 A.D. when the Indians developed the Arabic numerals that we are still using today.

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