Over a thousand years before telescopes were invented, Babylonian astronomers observed the movement of planets at night by using simple arithmetic. At least, that’s what most people believed.
The recent translation of a Babylonian inscription reveals that ancient Astronomers used techniques far more advanced than simple arithmetic — techniques that foreshadow the development of calculus, previously believed to have been discovered in the west some 1,500 years later.
The Babylonians’ skills in arithmetic and astronomy are well known and much of their knowledge was preserved through inscriptions on clay tablets. It was on one such tablet that astroarchaeologist Mathieu Ossendrijver of Humboldt University in Germany discovered something amazing.
Translating the cuneiform script about the planet Jupiter, he found that the Babylonians were using a sophisticated technique to monitor the gas giant’s movement over a period of 60 days. The techniques involved the use of four-sided shapes called Trapezoids to calculate speed and distance travelled by the planet.
“This discovery reveals how advanced this ancient civilization was,” Prof. Ossendrijver told the blog, Gizmodo. “Nobody was expecting to discover something like this in the Babylonian inscriptions.”
It was previously believed that the Babylonians measured Jupiter’s movements every day, adding their figures together. But according to the new discovery, they in fact used a more sophisticated method to determine the distance covered over a 60-day period, one that required measurement of only the first and last distance moved.
Understanding the techniques used required considerable effort because of how complex the relationship between speed, location, and time was in the Babylonians’ calculations.
The inscription was found among thousands of clay tablets that were discovered in Iraq during the Nineteenth Century, many of which were able to teach scientists a great deal about Babylonian civilisation, including their sophisticated astronomy techniques.
Prof. Ossendrijver worked as an astrophysicist until starting to study Babylonian inscriptions in 2005.
“This is scientific history. I hope this discovery increases awareness of the value of protecting heritage,” Ossendrijver said to Gizmodo. “Who knows what else is hidden on clay tablets in Museums around the world?”