The Babylonians and Geometric Astronomy

Image Credit: Egor Myznik

Historians have long known that ancient civilizations had an interest in outer space, but have held that it wasn’t until the Europeans began seriously studying heavenly bodies during the 14th century that planets were accurately tracked and studied. Now, a new discovery disproves this long-held belief and reveals that one culture was accurately describing the movements of Jupiter 15 centuries before European astronomers.

Anthropologists have already revealed that the Babylonians revered a god named Marduk, which they associated with the planet Jupiter, and viewed as the actual embodiment of their god in the night sky. Now, it seems there is evidence to suggest that the Babylonians developed highly sophisticated ways of monitoring and tracking the planet.

A small clay tablet was recently discovered by Mathieu Ossendrijver of Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany. The tablet is believed to have been made sometime between 350 BC and 50 BC. Although it is only a few square inches in size, the tablet shows that the Babylonians developed a very advanced mathematical system to predict and describe the movements of Jupiter. The system has been likened to a sort of precalculus, and the tablet fragment shows a graph that pits velocity against time. Other fragments placed alongside this one indicate that the Babylonians knew that by comparing the two measurements they could determine the distance that Jupiter had traveled.

During the 1950s, an Austrian-American scientific historian and mathematician named Otto E. Neugebauer found the first two of these tablet fragments that led to the discovery of the Babylonian system for tracking Jupiter. The professor knew from his studies that the ancient mathematicians of the civilization were using advanced mathematics to study something, but just what they were so diligently tracking eluded him. Ossendrijver managed to fill in the pieces with the two more recent tables. Before his discovery, many people thought that the mathematic calculations were simply being used to study geometric shapes like trapezoids.

Ossendrijver made his discovery when he was looking at a series of photographs of the tablets that are a part of the collection at London’s British Museum. When he studied the markings as shown in the images, he became convinced that the numbers represented were related not to geometry, but to astronomy. What still remains to be known, however, is whether the Europeans who continued the study of Jupiter centuries later worked from the system developed by the Babylonians, or alternatively developed a system on their own.

The movement of Jupiter presented a great puzzle to ancient astronomers, as after it becomes visible in the night sky the planet appears to slow down as evenings progress. Then, 120 days after it makes its first appearance it seems to stop moving entirely and eventually travels in the opposite direction. According to the tablet, the Babylonians had successfuly calculated the distance Jupiter traveled during the first 60 days of its apperance, and when you compare the actual movements of Jupiter to the calculations performed by the Babylonians, you can see that the ancient astronomers were remarkably accurate. Their system of mathematics is not unlike what is used today by physicists and mathematicians, suggesting that the Babylonians had advanced knowledge of the heavens that were truly out of this world. As Dr. Ossendrijver explains:

“It anticipates integral calculus. This is utterly familiar to any modern physicist or mathematician.”

Related Posts