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Pythagoras of Samos: The Man Behind The Math

(Cover Artist: Delilah Friedman)

When students are learning geometry and encountering the right triangle in math class, Pythagoras is a name that often comes up. The Pythagorean Theorem states that the sides of every right triangle fit into this equation: a²+b²=c². In this equation c is the hypotenuse of the triangle (the longest side) and a & b are each of the other two sides. But, who was Pythagoras and why was he so influential to both the thinkers of his day and classrooms today?

Not much is certain about the life of Pythagoras. He was born in the island of Samos in the eastern Aegean Sea around the year 570 BC, likely to a gem-engraver named Mnesarchus. Around 530 BC, when he was about 40, he traveled to a city named Croton in present-day Southern Italy where he founded a school based on his teachings, called Pythagoreanism. Pythagoreanism preached a communal lifestyle based on abstinence from worldly pleasures. This included many dietary restrictions, especially against fava beans and meat, though it is debated whether Pythagoras subscribed to total vegetarianism or not.

Though Pythagoras is perhaps most well known for his mathematical theorems carrying his name, many classical historians dispute the fact that he had any significant contribution to the field of mathematics at all. The famous Pythagoras theorem had been used by ancient Babylonian and Indian mathematicians for centuries before Pythagoras, though he was likely the first to introduce it to the Greeks and so the Western world.

Another mathematical achievement credited to Pythagoras by many historians was the discovery of the five regular solids: a solid made up of congruent (identical in shape and size) faces, with each face being a regular polygon (a polygon with all sides and angles being congruent) and the same number of faces meeting at each vertex. He was also believed to be the first to discover the Theory of Proportions which states that if two sequences of numbers have a constant ratio, they are proportional.

Pythagoras wasn’t just a mathematician though. Some historians credit him with figuring out that music notes could be translated into mathematical equations. Legend has it that one day Pythagoras heard a blacksmith clanging a hammer and thought the sound the hammers made were all beautiful and harmonious, except one. When he tested the hammers, he found that the size of the hammers was proportional to the type of sound they made and so concluded that music was mathematical in nature.

Pythagoras of Samos may not have actually done much in the grand scheme of mathematical history but his name is still used nearly 3000 years later to still teach to young inquisitive math students, which has immense value all on its own.

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