Craig Vick's Scattered Thoughts

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Hippasus of Metapontum


Hippasus of Metapontum is believed to be the first mathematician to prove the existence of irrational numbers. Last year, much to the delight and amazement of the archeologists involved, clay tablets were discovered which contained an account of Hippasus’ trial. Using my best seminary Greek skills, I offer the following translation:

The small group of mathematical priests rowed out into the calm sea. When their boat came to rest Pythagoras asked Hippasus if he would present the proof. Hippasus was only too happy to oblige. With great zeal he walked his brothers through the reasoning that showed that the square root of two could not be represented as a ratio of two numbers. With every step of the proof his enthusiasm grew. When he finished he was out of breath. Looking around at his brothers he expected to see in their faces a joy of discovery. He’d seen this joy many times in the past.

He saw no joy, only blank stares and a couple of frowns. Pythagoras broke the silence. “Hippasus of Metapontum, how could you have done this disgraceful thing? For many years our order has taught the harmony of the cosmos. More than a few of our brothers have died for that truth. You yourself swore to uphold it. How can you now turn your face against everything we believe with this wretched proof?”

“I believe with all my heart in the harmony we proclaim.” Hippasus protested. “I have only shown that the square root of two cannot be represented as a ratio. The harmony of the cosmos is more complex than we ever dreamed.”

“All numbers can be represented as ratios.” a brother proclaimed. “The unity of all numbers is in the one.”

“You must renounce this so called proof. You’ve sworn to uphold the deep teachings of the brotherhood.”

Hippasus protested. “Our brotherhood upholds the right of conscience. How can I, in good conscience, renounce a proof? Am I to feign rejection of what I see to be true?”

The brothers took a vote. Hippasus was condemned to die. He was thrown off the boat. The brothers watched as he thrashed about the water, gasped for air and sunk beneath the gentle waves.

“We’ve done a great thing here today.”, one of the brothers announced. “This proof is dead, and will never be heard from again. The world will always know that all numbers can be represented as ratios.”


6 thoughts on “Hippasus of Metapontum

  1. Pingback: What You Say Seems Strange to Us, So You Are Wrong and You Must Die

  2. Reblogged this on Theological Jello and commented:
    This can be appreciated only by those who are familiar with another aspect of God’s Word, mathematics. It seems even here, the ignorant and unlearned err on the side of tradition in the face of that which is absolute.

  3. Thanks for visiting Middle-Man, and thanks for the shout out.

  4. Pingback: What You Say Seems Strange to Us, So You Are Wrong and You Must Die — Peter Enns | Curtis Narimatsu

  5. Hippasus of Metapontum is credited with the discovery of the existence of irrational numbers. The discovery of irrational numbers is said to have been shocking to the Pythagoreans, and Hippasus is supposed to have drowned at sea, for divulging this. However, the few ancient sources which describe this story either do not mention Hippasus by name or alternatively tell that Hippasus drowned because he revealed how to construct a dodecahedron inside a sphere. The discovery of irrationality is not specifically ascribed to Hippasus by any ancient writer. Some modern scholars though have suggested that he discovered the irrationality of √2, which it is believed was discovered around the time that he lived.

  6. Thanks for commenting Jack. My sense is that we “know” almost nothing about the historical Hippasus because the sources are so late.

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