Saturday, September 5, 2020

Oxford University Unveils 2 Letters on Ancient Egyptian Mathematics | Asharq AL-awsat

Oxford University Unveils 2 Letters on Ancient Egyptian Mathematics

Saturday, 5 September, 2020 - 07:00
The Pyramid of Khufu, the largest of the pyramids of Giza. (Reuters)

Two researchers at Oxford University unveiled a scientific document on mathematics in Ancient Egypt.

The document features two letters exchanged between Thomas Eric Peet (1882–1934), who was professor of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool and then a professor of Egyptology at Oxford, and Otto Neugebauer (1899–1990), one of the most prominent mathematics historians in the 20th century.

The letters were found at Peet's house, and then gifted to the Queen's College at Oxford. A recent study published in the latest issue of the Historia Mathematica journal, showcased the letters which shed light on the early 20th century study of ancient Egyptian math and issues of historical approaches to the ancient world.

The study was led by historian of mathematics Dr. Christopher Hollings and Egyptology Professor Richard Bruce Parkinson, who worked together on evaluating the discussions between Peet and Neugebauer, and a study prepared by Peet on a Rhind Mathematical Papyrus dating from 1537 BCE, now held in the British Museum.

In his study, Peet said the papyrus consists of over 80 arithmetical and geometrical problems and solutions, ranging from the distribution of rations among workers, to the calculation of areas and volumes. As such, it is one of the most complete surviving sources providing an insight into the mathematics used in ancient Egypt.

Peet's edition reignited academic interest in Egyptian mathematics. One of the people whom his work inspired was Neugebauer, who subsequently wrote a doctoral dissertation on the principles of Egyptian fraction reckoning (as reflected in the Rhind Papyrus).

According to Hollings and Parkinson, the letters between the pair shed light on the way in which ancient Egyptian mathematics was being re-evaluated in the 1920s.

They explained that the letters reveal a contrast between the attitudes of two scholars who approached the subject with different viewpoints. Both were competent mathematicians and Egyptologists, and yet one of them, Neugebauer, put the mathematics first, and linked the modern ideas on mathematics to the direct evidence of papyri.

As per Peet, he brought Egyptological considerations to the fore, and confined his analysis largely to what was clearly and unequivocally present in the ancient text.

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