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The Mathematics of the Maya (and Other Stories)

14 October 2021 @ 14:00 15:00

Watch the recording below.

In the United States, the second Monday of October is commonly referred to as “Columbus Day”, a holiday meant to commemorate the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492. However, given the false and problematic nature of this narrative, many Americans in recent years have begun rebranding this holiday as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”, to instead recognize the native people of the Americas who were impacted by imperialism and colonialism. To help honor the occasion, we’ll be discussing the mathematical achievements of one of the oldest civilizations in the Americas, the Maya, who lived in southern Mexico and central America as early as 4,600 years ago.

In this talk, we will introduce the Maya numeral system, which is simple enough to only require three symbols, yet powerful enough to represent large numbers easily and efficiently. We’ll observe how to perform basic arithmetic operations in their system (such as addition and multiplication), as well as how to extend their system to capture mathematical ideas that the Maya may have never used (such as rational and real numbers). Then, we’ll broaden our scope and take a brief tour of numeral systems of other civilizations throughout history and around the world, looking at their motivations, benefits, and disadvantages. By studying these numeral systems comparatively, we can improve our understanding of our own system of numbers, appreciate what makes the Maya system unique and useful to this day, and gain a deeper understanding of civilizations and cultures, past and present. Also, if time permits, we will see what makes the number 252 special.

This talk is intended for people of all mathematical backgrounds. No prerequisite knowledge is required.

Dr Hakim Walker

Hakim is a Preceptor in the Department of Mathematics at Harvard University, where he primarily teaches undergraduate students. Originally from New York City, he attended graduate school at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., earning his Ph.D in mathematics in 2017. Although his main research areas were in logic and computability theory, Hakim’s academic interests also include number theory, recreational mathematics, philosophy, the history of mathematics, and mathematics/STEM education.

via Microsoft Teams and streamed in E02, Monica Partridge Building