Ancient Babylonian clay tablets show that astronomers used geometrical calculations to track Jupiter, according to a new study.
Rudimentary calculus – which was thought to be developed about 1,400 later – may have in fact existed a lot earlier than scientists believed.
The clay tablets unveiled the astronomers’ calculations as they tracked the planet Jupiter across the sky. They date back to between 350 and 50 BCE. Scientists thought that the method that Babylonians used was developed in England around 1350. However, the new findings – published Thursday (Jan. 28) in the journal Science – suggest otherwise.
Ancient astronomers illustrated a trapezoid on some of the tablets. If that area of the trapezoid – which describes how the velocity of Jupiter’s path across the sky changes with time – is computed, it will give the distance travelled by the planet, Dr. Mathieu Ossendrijver, a Professor of History of Ancient Science at the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, said.
Jupiter had a special significance to ancient Babylonians: it was a manifestation of their god Marduk (patron deity of the city of Babylon). For instance, people believed that the planet’s position in the sky predicted things like the level of the river Euphrates, and so on. According to Dr. Ossendrijver, the people who did the calculations were likely priests.
Alexander Jones, a historian at New York University, said that until now the technique that the Babylonians used has not been found earlier than the 14th century in texts (form Europe) on moving bodies. The new findings testify to the intelligence of Mesopotamian scholars who developed Babylonian mathematical astronomy.
Noel Swerdlow, a historical researcher at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), also agrees that ancient Babylonians were extremely smart people and that their achievements at the time were very impressive.
Four of the tablets described the trapezoid, but did not entirely explain the computations behind it. However, a fifth tablet called text A (which does not illustrate the trapezoid), explains how the velocity of Jupiter changes over time. The explanation matches the trapezoid on the other tablets, according to Dr. Ossendrijver who studied the ancient clay tablets.
Greeks took up Babylonian astronomy, in which our modern-day astronomy is also rooted, Ossendrijver explained. Babylonia is not a dead and irrelevant culture, it is part of our heritage, he said.
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