Friday, June 20, 2008

The tale of "The square root of a rectangle"

Wow. Just wow.

I was just flicking through channels and caught a little of "Engineering an Empire" on the History Channel. The episode was on the Maya.

The narrator said something about the Maya knowing how to "compute the square root of a rectangle".

I was so boggled, I concluded I must have misheard - but no, it was repeated a minute or so later. It was emphasized; apparently we were expected to find this an impressive feat.

The Maya, apparently, knew how to compute the square root of a rectangle. That's pretty clever of them, because that, as far as I can see, is utter nonsense.

As Inigo Montoya might have put it: I do not think it means what you think it means.

I wondered if they meant "compute the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle" (which is equivalent to the diagonal of a rectangle). I also wondered if perhaps they meant "the geometric mean of two numbers" (since that would be the square root of the area of a rectangle). I also wondered if they possibly intended something else.

I concluded they probably meant the first thing (since that's a very valuable thing for a civilization to be able to do, crucial to surveying land - and then they had a shot of a Mayan guy squinting across the top of a stick as if he was indeed surveying). So that would kind of make sense.

But what the heck is someone who isn't comfortable with mathematics supposed to make of it?

The show was no cheap-and-nasty affair. They made some pretty fancy graphics. They had actors dress up in costumes, and they had some pretty fancy sets and location shots. This was a pretty involved documentary. Why the hell couldn't they have had the script looked over by anyone with even a modest bit of mathematics? Say, a mathematics undergrad? (Heck, I could have told them that was obvious nonsense before I was 16.)

That bit of (repeated, emphasized) mathematical nonsense is enough to make the entire program suspect - because if they were that lax with the mathematics, who knows what care was taken with the rest of it?


valhar2000 said...

if they were that lax with the mathematics, who knows what care was taken with the rest of it?

Which is why I acquired the deep suspicion I now have of the History Channel. I don't trust them farther than I can throw them.

Anonymous said...

Ouch. Perhaps they had figured out how to grow rectangular trees that had roots with square cross sections?

Really, anyone who's graduated high school should know how nonsensical the phrase is, though I acknowledge this is not the case. Couldn't they have found one person with even the teeniest understanding of math to verify their statements?

valhar2000 said...

Well, Intrinsicallyknotted, the thing is that people who know something are dangerous in situations like this. They'll start questioning the other "facts" on your show and, before you know it, what's left of your documentary does not support your prefered conclusion.

Anonymous said...

The term "Square Root of a Rectangle" is not a correct term, but was (I think) an error by a math-challenged writer of the program whose intention was to refer to the concept of "Root Rectangles". A root rectangle is a rectangle in which the ratio of the longer side to the shorter is the square root of an integer, such as √2, √3, etc. My guess is that having only minimal math expertise, the writer conflated all math terms containing "Root" with "Square Root".
---diana g