AN OLD NUMBER AND AN OLD STORY

Last August, when I posted the blog “A Father’s Dream” referring to Isaac’s hope that his son Binyamin would become a scholar like Hero of Alexandria, I knew Hero was a famous first-century CE mathematician, inventor, and engineer. But I didn’t realize he had a place in the development of the square root of minus one, a complex number referred to today as "i" for imaginary.

In fact, I hadn’t thought much about that strange number my tenth-grade geometry teacher mentioned decades ago until I saw on my husband’s night table the book pictured here and wondered what he was reading. To my surprise, the author mentioned Hero’s encounter with that number. But even more surprising, the concept was mentioned much earlier, in a papyrus unearthed at the ancient Egyptian burial site in the Valley of Kings, where it was used for calculating the volume of a truncated rectangular pyramid.

Of course, Miriam’s twin brother had no interest in geometry. In fact, he’d cut school every chance he got and recommended Miriam do the same:

Life is short. Take it from me: Pursue pleasure. That’s the only lesson I remember from school, that one class in philosophy, that pleasure is the supreme good, and bodily pleasures are better than mental pleasures. To me, being a gladiator means pursuing those pleasures both in and out of the arena…. And why should I care whether Papa grounded me [for cutting school]? I’d just jump out my window a