Newspaper article International New York Times

Ancient Babylon Cast a Modern Eye on Skies

Newspaper article International New York Times

Ancient Babylon Cast a Modern Eye on Skies

Article excerpt

Scientists have found a tablet with markings indicating that a sort of precalculus technique was used to track Jupiter's motion in the night sky.

For people living in the ancient city of Babylon, Marduk was their patron god, and thus it is not a surprise that Babylonian astronomers took an interest in tracking the comings and goings of the planet Jupiter, which they regarded as a celestial manifestation of Marduk.

What is perhaps more surprising is the sophistication with which they tracked the planet, judging from inscriptions on a small clay tablet dating from between 350 B.C. and 50 B.C. The tablet, a couple of inches wide and a couple of inches tall, reveals that the Babylonian astronomers employed a sort of precalculus in describing Jupiter's motion across the night sky relative to the distant background stars. Until now, credit for this kind of mathematical technique had gone to Europeans who lived some 15 centuries later.

"That is a truly astonishing find," said Mathieu Ossendrijver, a professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, who describes his archaeological astronomy discovery in an article on Thursday in the journal Science.

"It's a figure that describes a graph of velocity against time," he said. "That is a highly modern concept."

Mathematical calculations on four other tablets show that the Babylonians realized that the area under the curve on such a graph represented the distance traveled.

"I think it's quite a remarkable discovery," said Alexander Jones, a professor at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, who was not involved with the research.

Ancient Babylon, situated in what is now Iraq, south of Baghdad, was a thriving metropolis, a center of trade and science. Early Babylonian mathematicians who lived between 1800 B.C. and 1600 B.C. had figured out, for example, how to calculate the area of a trapezoid, and even how to divide a trapezoid into two smaller trapezoids of equal area.

For the most part, Babylonians used their mathematical skills for mundane calculations, like figuring out the size of a plot of land. …

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