Sunday, June 17, 2012

Everyone's Favorite Math Subject - Fractions

As we saw with numbers, the Egyptian had glyphs to represent fractions. The symbol is portions of the eye broken into representative sections. (For the previous discussion about eyes you can go back to this post and read about them.) Suffice to say that there are some disagreements over time whether this eye is the Eye of Horus or the Eye of Ra or the Wadjet or none of these between the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom. For the sake of this discussion I am just going to call it an eye instead of trying to decide what time period is right to use or what word would be right.

The Eye fractions as presented at
The First International Conference on Ancient Egyptian Science .
Since this illustration it has been suggested that the eyebrow stroke is 1/8.
Looking at it in pieces we can imagine writing a fraction. The Egyptians did not write fractions the same way we do. All Egyptian fractions are one over some number with the exception of 2/3. We'll leave 2/3 for later. Right now we will focus on how an Egyptian might write other fractions.

For example:
We would write 3/4 where an Egyptian would write the glyphs for 1/4 and 1/2 together to show 3/4.
If we write 3/8 the Egyptians would write 1/4 and 1/8 together.

It might seem clunky at first but even very complex fractions could be quite beautiful. Most standards leave the sections in the place of the eye form. So our Egyptian 3/8 would be a brow and pupil drawn in the normal placement. To get a better idea here are all of the pieces in the standard places.

Another set of fraction symbols exist in the Egyptian set of glyphs. These glyphs were used at the same time as the Eye glyphs were.

The final thing about fractions is conversions. The Egyptians used conversions and fractions particularly in food related topics such as grain but have been found related to other subjects. These conversions would be very similar to modern conversions between different units. I will discuss more about conversions in another post when the topic of geometry is at hand.

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