Photo: Jacobolus (wikimedia)
It’s time once more for the Science Hero Award, where we recognize someone from history who did terrific things to advance human understanding.
For this latest award our distinguished panel of one has chosen: Pythagoras of Samos.
Pythagoras lived in the sixth century B.C. on the Aegean island of Samos. He is said to have traveled widely, learning everything he could about numbers. Back in those days the information was kind of limited. The Babylonians were pretty advanced, and the Egyptians were already using geometry to reconstruct the edges of fields after the Nile flooded them out each year. Pythagoras found that even these cultures had not spent much time trying to understand *why* the rules worked the way they did.
He gathered up all the information he could in twenty years of travel and returned to Samos. There he lived in a cave, devoting himself entirely to figuring out numbers and their relationships. Eventually he founded a school of six hundred followers.
By focusing on how numbers operate in themselves, rather than merely following a handed-down set of rules because it happened to work, Pythagoras became one of the founding figures of the many different disciplines that today are called mathematics. He also is credited with being the first person to claim that everything in nature, from the vibrations of a guitar string to the orbiting of the planets, can be understood by way of numbers. Since his time, math and science have gone places Pythagoras never dreamed of, but we wouldn’t have gotten started on the journey without his help.