The mysterious life of Pythagoras

A bust of Pythagoras. Image: Gavin Baker, via Flickr.

Pythagoras. Image: Gavin Baker, via Flickr.

The Pythagorean Theorem is a well-known theorem that we study in math. We all probably learned about it in high school during our geometry class. It is a simple theorem: a2 + b2= c2, which we use to find the hypotenuse of a right angle (90 degrees) triangle. What we did not learn about was the man who this theorem is named after. What was he like, how did he live his life, and what was he famous for?

Pythagoras was an Ionian Greek philosopher and a mathematician. He was from a Greek Island  called Samos. He made many contributions in his life, one of which was a movement called Pythagoreans. Pythagoras strongly believed that the soul was immortal and went through a series of reincarnations; he was also thought to be knowledgeable about various religious rituals and for his strict way of living his life.

Pythagoras created a school in Croton (now known as Crotone and is located in Calabria, Southern Italy) which not only allowed male but also female students (he ended up marrying one of them). The school was divided into four sections: arithmetica ( the number theory), harmonica (music), geometra (geometry), and astrologia (astronomy). The members of the school were not allowed to share the knowledge they gathered with those who did not go to that school. Therefore there are not many written documents about the Pythagoreans’ ideas and any findings that they might have made. For this reason we cannot tell what is true and what is a myth in the information we have about him. Scholars are not even sure if Pythagoras created the Pythagorean Theorem or whether it was merely named after him.

Pythagoras had many interests in different fields. From his work many scholars, such as Nicholas Copernicus, Plato and his student Socrates, were inspired. For example, in Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates talks about the possibilities related to the soul’s existence and how it went through a series of lives after death. Nicholas Copernicus did not refer his view on the earth’s relationship with the sun as the ‘Copernican System’ but he refers it as Astronomia Pythagorica because he was greatly inspired by Pythagoras’ ideas on the cosmos, which gave him and other philosophers various views on different topics. In Copernicus’ case, this was astronomy.

One of the articles I read states that Pythagoras helped with the discovery of harmonious intervals of the musical scale. He found the fourth, the fifth and the whole tones. This indicates that mathematics can also change the way we perceive different sounds. Pythagoras uses ratios to change these sounds, for example, by dividing a string in half which is a ratio of 2:1, the shorter string gives off a tone that is an octave higher than the longer string. Similar with the fourth, the ratio of 3:4; and the fifth, a ratio of 2:3 change the octave. The ratio of 9:8 (a pitch) characterizes the whole tone. In this way mathematics helped in discovering the musical sound system.

Because of a lack of documents, Pythagoras’ entire life is a mystery, including his death. No one seems to know how, when and where Pythagoras really died. Some believe that Pythagoras went back to Croton and lived up to 100 years. Others believe that the Pythagoreans (including Pythagoras, himself) was surrounded and set to fire during a revolt, but it is also a possibility that he may have escaped, as people made a ‘bridge’ of their bodies over the flames. It is believed that after the escape he went to Metapontum (a city located in Sothern Italy) where he died on a sacred bean field rather than choosing to die at the hands of his enemies.

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