Saturday, January 29, 2011

Ancient World History (Greece): The Life and Influence of Pythagoras

In our study of the ancient world, we have been focusing on the life and influence of Pythagoras, a Greek teacher and philosopher.   Pythagoras has been fascinating to study, especially since there are some noteworthy parallels to his life and that of Buddha’s, our last ancient world figure.   For instance, both had a privileged early life, but they devoted their adult lives to learning truth and knowledge.  They both believed in educating women and in reincarnation.  Pythagoras was more of an elitist though.  He believed in putting his students through a rigorous set of tests to prove themselves.  Only the best and brightest were allowed into his inner circle, though others could study at his school in a limited capacity. 

Mathematics was the thrust behind Pythagoras.  He believed the essence of all things is numbers.   Numbers, he hypothesized, are not just the key to the physical world but also to the spiritual world.  For instance, he thought that each of the first ten numbers (1-10) had a name and a purpose, such as #1 was the origin of everything, #2 represented creation, #4 signified justice, and #8 symbolized friendship.  He used numbers to define shapes and to develop music notes.  Pythagoras even saw a relationship between numbers and morality. 

There are not many juvenile resources on this highly influential man.  The three books I read are the most recent and accessible.  There is one other resource that is not readily available to me, but it may be to others:  Pythagoras: Pioneering Mathematician and Musical Theorist of Ancient Greece (ages 12 and up) by Dimitra Karamanides.

The Life and Times of Pythagoras (ages 10 and up) by Susan Sales Harkins & William H. Harkins  
This biography is divided into five chapters:  Pythagoras’ early life, his schools, his general philosophy, his theories on numbers, and his final years.  The closing pages include a timeline of the major events in his life, a timeline of related historical events, and further resource citations on Pythagoras.   Personally, I found the material fascinating.  My children (10 and 13) thought it was a bit heavy for reading out loud.   I would recommend this book as background knowledge for a teacher or a parent.   I created a handout to help make the material more manageable.  This biographical book could also be used for older children (at least 11 and up) to read independently for a research project or for further knowledge. 

Even if you do not plan to study Pythagoras’ life in any detail, the next two resources are effective in showing how mathematics can be used to assist people with everyday problems.  Use them to accompany a math lesson or to inspire children to value the field of mathematics. 

What’s Your Angle, Pythagoras? (ages 8 and up) by Julie Ellis 
Pythagoras is a curious boy.  He loves to observe problems and to find mathematic solutions for them.  During a trip to Egypt with his father, he learns about right angles which inspires him to develop the idea of square roots.  He uses square roots to help his father figure out the distance between home and his trading destination as well as to adjust a ladder so it is tall enough to reach the roof.  Then, he uses a rope formed into a right angle to help some builders make perfect squares, allowing them to fix the crooked bases of the columns on a temple they are working on.  Pythagoras learns that difficult problems can be solved when looking at them from the “right” angle. 

Pythagoras and the Ratios (ages 8 and up) by Julie Ellis  
Octavius, Pythagoras’ cousin, makes some new pipes to play in a local musical contest.  Unfortunately, they sound awful!  Pythagoras aids his cousin by comparing his sweet sounding pipes with the dreadful sounding ones.  Using ratios, Pythagoras cuts the pipes so they are the same ratio as his own but due to size one sounds deeper and the other is lighter.  He learns that the length of the pipes controls how high or how low the musical notes sound.   Amara, another cousin, is so impressed that she asks him to fix two lyres in the same way.   Using different weighted rocks, Pythagoras manages to adjust the lyres to have the same notes as the pipes.  By standardizing the notes, the group is able to play songs together in perfect tune at the musical contest.  This story, while fictional, is based on historical references to Pythagoras’ experimentation and discovery of the relationship between music and mathematic. 

For other ancient Greek posts, click here.

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