Thales of Miletus (ca 624 - 546 BC) Greek domain
Thales was the Chief of the Seven Sages of ancient Greece, and has been called the "Father of Science," the "Founder of Abstract Geometry," and the "First Philosopher." Thales is believed to have studied mathematics under Egyptians, who in turn were aware of much older mathematics from Mesopotamia. Thales may have invented the notion of compass-and-straightedge construction. Several fundamental theorems about triangles are attributed to Thales, including the law of similar triangles (which Thales used famously to calculate the height of the Great Pyramid) and "Thales' Theorem" itself: the fact that any angle inscribed in a semicircle is a right angle. (The other "theorems" were probably more like well-known "axioms", but Thales proved Thales' Theorem using two of his other theorems; it is said that Thales then sacrificed an ox to celebrate what might have been the very first mathematical proof!) Thales noted that, given a line segment of length x, a segment of length x/k can be constructed by first constructing a segment of length kx. Thales was also an astronomer; he invented the 365-day calendar, introduced the use of Ursa Minor for finding North, and is the first person believed to have correctly predicted a solar eclipse. His theories of physics would seem quaint today, but he seems to have been the first to describe magnetism and static electricity. Aristotle said, "To Thales the primary question was not what do we know, but how do we know it." Thales was also a politician, ethicist, and military strategist. It is said he once leased all available olive presses after predicting a good olive season; he did this not for the wealth itself, but as a demonstration of the use of intelligence in business. Thales' writings have not survived and are known only second-hand. Since his famous theorems of geometry were probably already known in ancient Babylon, his importance derives from imparting the notions of mathematical proof and the scientific method to ancient Greeks. Thales' student and successor was Anaximander, who is often called the "First Scientist" instead of Thales: his theories were more firmly based on experimentation and logic, while Thales still relied on some animistic interpretations. Anaximander is famous for astronomy, cartography and sundials, and also enunciated a theory of evolution, that land species somehow developed from primordial fish! Anaximander's most famous student, in turn, was Pythagoras. (The methods of Thales and Pythagoras led to the schools of Plato and Euclid, an intellectual blossoming unequalled until Europe's Renaissance. For this reason Thales may belong on this list for his historical importance despite his relative lack of mathematical achievements.)
Apastambha (ca 630-560 BC) India
The Dharmasutra composed by Apastambha contains mensuration techniques, novel geometric construction techniques, a method of elementary algebra, and what may be the first known proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. Apastambha's work uses the excellent (continued fraction) approximation √2 ≈ 577/408, a result probably derived with a geometric argument.
Apastambha built on the work of earlier Vedic scholars, especially Baudhayana, as well as Harappan and (probably) Mesopotamian mathematicians. His notation and proofs were primitive, and there is little certainty about his life. However similar comments apply to Thales of Miletus, so it seems fair to mention Apastambha (who was perhaps the most creative Vedic mathematician before Panini) along with Thales as one of the earliest mathematicians whose name is known.
Pythagoras of Samos (ca 578-505 BC) Greek domain
Pythagoras, who is sometimes called the "First Philosopher," studied under Anaximander, Egyptians, Babylonians, and the mystic Pherekydes (from whom Pythagoras acquired a belief in reincarnation); he became the most influential of early Greek mathematicians. He is credited with being...
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