Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | November 30, 2008

War and Peace

In c. 2074 BCE, king Shulgi organized a military reform in the Sumerian Empire, and the next year an administrative reform (seemingly introduced under the pretext of a state of emergency but soon made permanent) enrolled the larger part of the working population in quasi–servile labour crews and made overseer scribes accountable for the performance of their crews, calculated in abstract units worth 1/60 of a working day (12 minutes) and according to fixed norms. In the ensuing bookkeeping, all work and output therefore had to be calculated precisely and converted into these abstract units, which asked for multiplications and divisions en masse. Therefore, a place value system with base 60 was introduced for intermediate calculations. Its functioning presupposed the use of tables of multiplication, reciprocals and technical constants and the training for their use in schools; the implementation of a system whose basic idea was “in the air” for some centuries therefore asked for decisions made at the level of the state and implemented with great force. Then as in many later situations, only war provided the opportunity for such social willpower.

[Quoted  from  Yu. I. Manin, Mathematical knowledge: internal, social and cultural aspects. arXiv:math.HO/0703427, who quoted from Mathematics and War. Ed. by B. Booß–Bavnbek, J. Hoyrup. Birkhauser Verlag, Basel, 2003.]

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