Astronomers from ancient Babylonia discovered astronomical geometry some 1,400 years before Oxford’s medieval mathematicians, according to new research.
Until now, 14th century mathematicians from Oxford have been credited with inventing a simple form of calculus capable of tracking heavenly bodies as they traverse through space. But now, new research shows that Babylonians may have beat them to the punch by at least 1,400 years, as fresh analysis of clay tablets that date back to at least 50 B.C. shows that the ancient Babylonian astronomers had devised a math-based tracking system used to calculate the movements of Jupiter in relation to other heavenly bodies.
The discovery, which was made by astrophysicist Mathieu Ossendrijver with the Humboldt University in Berlin, was years in the making.
In 2014, a retired Assyriologist passed some photographs of tablets onto Ossendrijver who in turn, took notice of one in particular. The particular tablet that caught Ossendrijver’s eye was a two-by-two-inch tablet that turned out to be a Rosetta Stone of sorts, as it allowed him to decode the four tablets that he had previously toiled over.
As it turns out, the mysterious tablets contain calculations intended to predict Jupiter’s movements, which the ancient astronomers referred to as the “White Star.”
The tablet that allowed Ossendrijver to decode the other tablets, which is known formally as BM 40054, is a “highly abbreviated version of a more complex computation that I already knew from five, six seven other tablets,” according to Ossendrijver.
his tablet contains numbers and computations, additions, divisions, multiplications. It doesn’t actually mention Jupiter. It’s a highly abbreviated version of a more complete computation that I already knew from five, six, seven other tablets
Brown University professor John Steele, who was not involved in the study, was quoted by The Washington Post as having said that Ossendrijver’s findings show “that there is still more to learn about ancient science, and that every new thing we do learn demonstrates just how clever the ancient astronomers were”. Steele’s specialty is ancient astronomy.
Ossendrijver speculates that scholars, or perhaps “one very clever guy,” came up with the system, which is reminiscent of integral calculus, between 350 and 50 B.C. — more than a millennium before Europeans.
In Babylonia, between 350 and 50 B.C., scholars, or maybe one very clever guy, came up with the idea of drawing graphs of the velocity of a planet against time, and computing the area of this graph — of doing a kind of computation that seems to be thoroughly modern, that is not found until 1350
The study’s findings were published on Thursday in the journal Science.