Babylonian math and modern addition

Babylonians, who were very early astronomers, inherited a rather interesting counting system from the Sumerians, one that worked in Base 60, if you can believe it. It was basically derived from counting each of the segments of the fingers on one hand, not including the thumb (3 x 4) and then using all five fingers on the other hand to count each set of 12. Five times 12, of course, equals 60.

60 is a very useful number because it has so many factors: 1 through 6, then 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60. It also has common factors with 8 (2 and 4) and 9 (3), and can easily create integer fractions with multiples of 5 and 10. For example, 45/60 reduces very easily. First, divide both by 5 to get 9/12, then divide both by 3 to get 3/4. It works just as easily in reverse — 60/45, 12/9, 4/3 which equals 1 1/3.

If you’re ahead of me, then you’ve already realized a very important place where we use 60 a lot.

Now, I would argue that the system is actually Base 12 counted in groups of 5, but the outcome is rather interesting, because to this day it forms the basis for some pretty basic things: Euclidean geometry and telling time.

A minute has 60 seconds and an hour has 60 minutes, of course. A circle has 360 degrees, which is 60 times 6. It’s a fortunate coincidence that an Earth year worked out to be so close to that in number of days — 365.25. And in case you’ve ever wondered why we add one day every four years, like we will this year, that’s the reason why. Our 365 day calendar loses a full day in that time, and we put it back by tacking it onto the end of February.

I still think that it was more Base 12 times 5, because there are some significant dozens that pop up, again thanks to the Babylonians. There are a dozen constellations in the zodiac, each one taking up 30 degrees of sky, giving us 12 months.

Of course, you can’t write “12” in Base 12 — those digits actually denote what would be 14 in Base 10. So how do you get around there only being 10 digits if you want to write in bigger bases?

If you’ve done any kind of coding or even HTML, you’re probably familiar with the hexadecimal system, which is Base 16. There, the convention was established that once a digit hit nine, the rest would be filled out with letters until you incremented the next digit up. So, once we get to 9 in Base 16, the following digits are A (10), B (11), C (12), D (13), E (14), and F (15). F is followed by 10 (16), and the whole process repeats following the rules I’ve described previously.

Now you might wonder, how did they do single digits in Base 60, and the answer is that the Babylonians didn’t. In fact, they sort of cheated, and if you look at their numbering system, it’s actually done in Base 10. They just stop at 59 before rolling over. They also didn’t have a zero or a concept of it, which made the power of any particular digit a bit ambiguous.

And yet… Babylonians developed a lot of the complex mathematics we know to this day, including algebra, a pretty accurate calculation of the square root of 2, how to figure out compound interest, an apparent early version of the Pythagorean theorem, an approximation of π accurate to about four digits, measuring angular distances, and Fourier analysis.

Yeah, not too bad for an ancient civilization that didn’t have internet or smart phones and who wrote all their stuff in clay using sticks, huh? But that is the beauty of the ingenuity of the human mind. We figured out this stuff thousands of years ago and have built upon it ever since. The tricks the Babylonians learned from the Sumerians led in a straight line right to the device you’re reading this on, the method it’s being piped to your eye-holes, the system of satellites or tunnels of fiber optics that more likely than not takes the data from source to destination, and even the way all that data is encoded.

Yay, humans! We do manage to advance, sometimes. The real challenge is continuing to move forward instead of backward, but here’s a clue. Every great advance we have made has been backed up by science. Within our own living memory — that of ourselves, or the still living generations who remember what their parents and grandparents remembered — we went from not being able to fly at all to landing humans on the Moon to launching probes out of our solar system, all of it in under one century.

We have eradicated or mitigated diseases that used to kill ridiculous numbers of people, are reducing fatality rates for other diseases, and are increasing life expectancy, at least when the voice of reason holds sway. For a while, we even made great advances in cleaning up the environment and quite possibly turning the tide back in favor of reversing the damage.

But… the real risk is that we do start moving backward, and that always happens when the powers that be ignore science and replace it with ignorance and superstition, or ignore the advances of one group because they’re part of “them,” not “us.”

To quote Hamilton, “Oceans rise, empires fall.” And when an empire falls, it isn’t always possible for it to spread its knowledge. What Babylon discovered was lost and found many times, to the point that aspects of it weren’t found again until the time of the ancient Greeks or the Muslims, or the Renaissance.

In order, and only in terms of math, those cultures gave us geometry; algebra and the concept of zero; and optics and physics — an incomplete list in every case. European culture didn’t give us much in the way of science between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, while the Muslim world was flourishing in all of the parts of Northern Africa and Southern Europe that it had conquered, along with preserving and advancing all of that science and math from fallen old-world civilizations.

Yeah, for some funny reason back then, their religion supported science. Meanwhile, in other places a certain religion didn’t, and the era was called the Dark Ages. That eventually flipped and the tide turned in Europe beginning in the 16th century. In case you’ve ever wondered, that’s exactly why every college course in “modern” history begins at 1500 C.E.

Sadly, the prologue to this is the Italian war criminal Cristobal Colón convincing the Spanish religious fanatics Fernando y Isabel to finance his genocidal expedition originally intended to sail west to India but unfortunately finding some islands next to a continent in the way, on which he raped, pillaged, and slaughtered people for his own amusement. Or, in other words, the Dark Ages didn’t end until Colón and those Spanish rulers were dead and buried, meaning January 23, 1516, when they fed the last of them, Fernando, to the worms.

Oh, except that humans continued to be shitty as they sailed west even as science back home advanced. Dammit. And that’s been the back and forth since forever. What we really need are more people committed to the “Forth!” while determined to stop the “Back!”

Or, at the very least, push the science forward, push the bullshit back.