Fantastic History of Maths Expert for Year 7

Yesterday, X27 had a talk from Dr Fionntan Roukema, a lecturer from the University of Sheffield. He spoke to us about different number systems from Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to the base-60 system of the Babylonians.


Students became historians for the hour, translating the Egyptian Narmer Macehead and a Babylonian clay tablet. We learned about the hieroglyphs for 1, 10, 100, 1000, and so on. Students thought that the symbol for 100,000 looks like a bird and 1000 looks like a ‘pacman plant’! The generally accepted theory is that they are a tadpole and a lotus flower respectively, but it was interesting to learn about how the ability to read hieroglyphics was lost for hundreds of years until the discovery of the Rosetta stone – what knowledge might we lose from our current culture in the future? Students translated the Narmer Macehead and found that it shows Pharoah Narmer being presented with the spoils of a conquest: 400,000 cattle, 1,422,000 goats and 120,000 slaves. Can you spot the numbers?

Students also translated the Babylonian clay tablet and noticed that it is a multiplication table for the multiples of 9. The first six rows show that they used a mark that looks like a ‘V’ to show the digit 1 and a mark that looks like ‘<‘ to show 10. The seventh row shows an unusual feature of Babylonian mathematics. 7 lots of 9 is 63 so we would expect to see 6 of the ‘<‘ mark and 3 of the ‘V’ mark. Instead we see one of the V mark, then a space and then 3 of the V mark. This means that they used the ‘V’ symbol to also represent 60. This is because they used a base-60 system. Fionntan explained that we can see remnants of this system still today with 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour!

I want to echo the students’ appreciations for Fionntan for coming and speaking to us and for inspiring them to follow their passions in life. I also want to appreciate X27 students for their enthusiasm, respect and kindness. I felt so proud of them as they really got involved and I know Fionntan was impressed as well. In particular I want to appreciate Roxy, Callum, Joseph, Charlie, Josh and Jaxon who answered and asked some great questions. This lecture and these activities are normally for final year maths undergraduates (I took this course myself at Uni) so our year 7 students were doing work 9 years above their age level!

Miss Boon

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