HIPPASUS of Metapontum was a member of the highly-secretive School of Pythagoras in Croton, in what is now southern Italy, some 2,500 years ago.
When the Pythagoreans discovered that the square root of 2 was irrational, could not be written as a fraction with one whole number divided by another whole number, an integer, their world was thrown into turmoil. They resolved this profound challenge to their world view, this mathematical truth, must remain a secret.
No one knows whether it was simply that Hippasus could not bear the strain of keeping a secret. Perhaps he blurted it out to impress a girl — or boy — in the Croton equivalent of a bar.
Maybe he was a Pythagorean whistleblower. Perhaps just a jealous second-rate mathematician who wanted some vain glory.
Or, he may have believed in the principle of open knowledge, that such a profound discovery belonged to the entire world, and was not the property of a secret elite… even if the secretive elite were mathematically-gifted vegetarians, but who wouldn’t eat beans, and who believed in the equality of women, but also believed they were reincarnated from cats.
Whatever he believed, we now know that the square root of 2 is irrational because of Hippasus (ok, I’m sure someone else would have found out between then and now).
But he ended up dead because of his treachery, or commitment to truth. Either way he ended up floating face down in the Mediterranean off Croton. Some say he was thrown off the cliffs. Others that he was taken out in a boat and thrown overboard.
Intellectuals, it seems, were not wimps back in the day. The battle of ideas got physical.
And cover-ups are not anything new. You won’t find much about Hippasus. What there is seems to be falling over backwards to keep the name of Pythagoras well distant. If anything happened… big if. If anything did happen, then it was some low-level hangers-on who did it.
I think it’s time to rehabilitate Hippasus.
I’d have liked to have heard about the square root of 2 from Hippasus. I bet it was a tale of intrigue and conspiracy.
For whatever reason, motive, he told us something we had a right to know. He didn’t deserve to die.
Welcome back Hippasus. Tell it how it is. Because it might be true. And we need to know.
Seems a good name for a blog. This one’s for you Hippasus.