Previously known for starting an order of astrologer-priests, are the Ancient Babylonians are also the first ones to use sophisticated geometry?
By: Ringo Bones
Before the recent research findings were published back in January 29, 2016, Ancient Babylonians were more famous for establishing the first order of astrologer-priests that would later evolve into what we know as the science of astronomy. But that all changed when evidence were uncovered that Ancient Babylonians were using a branch of geometry that only got widespread use in the 14th Century. The new study is published in the journal Science. Its author, Prof. Mathieu Ossendrijver from the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany said: “I wasn’t expecting this. It is completely fundamental to physics and all branches of science use this method.” The study suggests that sophisticated geometry – the branch of mathematics that deals with shapes – was being used at least 1,400 years earlier than previously thought.
The possibility that Ancient Babylonians were using geometrical calculations to track the planet Jupiter across the night sky entered the realm of plausibility after Prof. Ossendrijver examined five Babylonian tablets that were excavated in the 19th Century and which are now held in the British Museum’s archives. The script reveals that the Babylonians were using four-sided shapes, called trapezoids, to calculate when Jupiter would appear in the night sky and also the speed and distance that it traveled. “This figure – a rectangle with a slanted top – describes how the velocity of a planet, which is Jupiter, changes with time,” he said. “We have a figure where one axis, the horizontal side, represents time, and the other axis, the vertical side, represents velocity.” “The area of the trapezoid gives you the distance traveled by Jupiter along its orbit.” “What is so special is that this type of graph is unknown from antiquity – so making figures of motion in this rather abstract space of velocity against time – this is something very, very new.” It has been previously thought that complex geometry was first used by scholars in Oxford and Paris in Medieval times.
The Ancient Babylonians once lived in what is now Iraq and Syria. The civilization emerged in about 1,800 BC. Clay tablets engraved in their Cuneiform writing system have already shown these people were advanced in astronomy. “They wrote reports about what they saw in the sky,” Prof. Ossendrijver told the BBC World Service’s Science In Action programme. “And they did this over a very long period of time, over centuries,” he says.