MAYAN MATHEMATICS: The Power of Zero

 

Photo by Donkey shot, Wikimedia

Photo by Donkey shot, Wikimedia

The Mayans were seriously ahead of the Europeans for a great long while, as they knew how to count much more efficiently. And while their counting system might look daunting to modern eyes, being base twenty, it had only¬†three symbols: zero, dot, line (line being a compiler representing five, like our four ones scored thru with a slash). No, it’s not Morse Code!

Rendering: Neuromancer2K4, Wikimedia

Rendering: Neuromancer2K4, Wikimedia

The result of this simplicity was elegant, and it enabled them to devise a calendar which was exceedingly accurate. The concept of zero was a great advantage. They represented zero by depicting a turtle on its back (dead?). For example: over the course of a million years, the Julian calendar had an error of 7802 days; the Sothis calendar 2198 days; the Gregorian calendar 302 days; but the Mayan calendar only 69 days.

And the Mayans could have made their calendar even more accurate, with a residual error of only 2 days, but for their penchant for divisibility of numbers. The astronomical correction cycle is 1507.03 years, but the Mayans instead of rounding down to 1507 (which would have given them the 2 day correction), they rounded up to 1508 for greater divisibility.  1507 has one division of 11 X 137, but 1508 can be divided by 4 and by 13 and 29, two very important numbers to the Maya.

Friend Peter sent me a short video showing how the Maya did math. Pretty cool, no?

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Turtle shell adorning a temple at Uxmal.