Pythagoras: Life, work and achievements

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Born in Samos around 570 BC. AD, Pythagoras is commonly considered the first pure mathematician to propose that everything is a number.

Although best known for his mathematical theorem, Pythagoras also made extraordinary developments in astronomy and geometry. He also developed music theory and founded a philosophical and religious school in Croton, Italy. It was there that he taught that “the whole cosmos is a scale and a number”, according to the University of St Andrews .

While playing his lyre, which was an ancient Greek stringed instrument, Pythagoras discovered that vibrating strings created a beautiful sound when the ratios of the lengths of the strings were whole numbers, and that this was also true for other instruments. He combined this discovery with his understanding of the planets, devising the theory that when the planets were in harmony, it created beautiful music that man was unable to hear.

Pythagoras concluded that mathematics and music were interconnected and knowledge of one area led to understanding of the other, according to the University of Connecticut. He also believed that music had healing properties and often played his lyre for the sick and dying.

Little is known about the life of Pythagoras and as a result many bizarre myths have arisen around the man.

Among other things, it was claimed that he had participated in the Olympics and received laurels for pugilism, or boxing, when he was young. He was also said to have fought in the Trojan Wars in a previous life.

This last myth reflects Pythagoras’ genuine belief in metempsychosis, which holds that all souls are eternal and that when the physical body dies, it simply floats around and finds a new body in which to live, according to Stanford University. Later reports stated that he was able to clearly remember four past lives.

His fascination for astronomy as with many ancient Greeks, combined with his deep understanding of numbers led Pythagoras to confirm that the Earth was in fact a sphere, and by patient study he discovered that the Evening Star and the Morning Star were the same planet, Venus.

Pythagorean theory

The Pythagorean theory states that in a right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

In other words, when a triangle has a right angle and squares are made on each of the three sides, the larger square has the same area as the other two squares combined. The equation can be used to calculate the length of a third side if only two measurements are given.

Pythagore's theorem

Children are learning Pythagorean Theory all over the world. (Image credit: Getty Images)

The Babylonians discovered this mathematical phenomenon around 1900 – 1600 BC, but Pythagoras may have been the first to prove it, according to new scientist.

Although Pythagorean theory is still taught in every classroom today, no one would recognize its original school of thought as it combined its mathematical teachings with philosophy and religion. His disciples, the Pythagoreans

created a secret commune, filled with strange rules and regulations, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Much of his written work has been stored in the Great Library of Alexandria. Far from being the master mathematician we think of today, Pythagoras was known for his belief in reincarnation, religious rituals and his almost magical abilities, according to Stanford University. For example, it was said that he could be in two places at the same time. Today these mystical elements have been almost forgotten and he is now considered a founding father of science and mathematics.

In his footsteps

Plato

The Greek philosopher Plato established the world’s first university, known as the Platonic Academy, in ancient Athens. Although different from a modern university, the Academy was a place where people could meet and share their academic beliefs. Plato based much of his teachings on the thoughts of Pythagoras and his Pythagorean followers, according to Stanford University.

An illustration of Plato

The Greek philosopher and mathematician Plato studied the teachings of Pythagoras. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Aristotle

Like Pythagoras, Aristotle was interested in the concept of soul, according to the University of Washington. He wrote “On the Soul”, which set out to examine the psychology of humanity, the principles of which are still discussed by psychologists today. Aristotle combined metaphysics with scientific inquiry just as Pythagoras had done with metaphysics and number theory. He was also inspired by Pythagoras’ interest in astronomy, eventually developing the physical model of the heavens.

An illustration of Aristotle

After reading the works of Pythagoras, Aristotle went on to teach Alexander the Great. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Additional Resources

To learn more about Pythagoras, see “Pythagoras: his life, his teaching and his influenceby Christoph Riedweg and “PYthagoras: His Life and the Legacy of a Rational Universeby Kitty Ferguson.

Bibliography

  • Mickaël Launay & Stephen S. Wilson, “It All Adds Up: The History of People and Mathematics”, William Collins, 2019.
  • NRICH, “All is number”, University of Cambridge, 2017.
  • Michael Marshall, “Babylonians calculated with triangles centuries before Pythagoras”, New Scientist, August 2021.
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Pythagoras,” Stanford University, October 2018.
  • Holger Thesleff, “Pythagoreanism”, Encyclopedia Britannica, May 2020.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica, “Pythagorean Theorem”, May 2020.
  • University of Connecticut, “3.7 Music of the Spheres and the Lessons of Pythagoras”, accessed March 2022.
  • Silvano Leonessi, “The Pythagorean Philosophy of Numbers”, Rosicrucian Digest, Volume 1, 2009.
  • JJ O’Connor & EF Robertson, “Pythagoras of Samos”, University of St Andrews, January 1999.
  • Brent Swancer, “The Great Pythagoras and his Mystical Cult”, Mysterious Universe, January 2021.
  • Dimtry Sudakov, “Pythagoras and his theory of reincarnation”, Pravda.ru, May 2013.
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