Babylonians 'used geometry to track path of Jupiter'
Published 29/01/2016 | 14:01
Babylonians used geometry to track the path of Jupiter some 1,400 years before the technique was re-invented in 14th century Europe, research has shown.
Evidence from cuneiform text pressed into clay tablets suggests that Babylonian astronomers in ancient Iraq used methods foreshadowing calculus. This is the branch of mathematics developed by Sir Isaac Newton to define the laws of gravitation and motion.
The four tablets, at least two of which were from the British Museum, are thought to date back to between 50 and 350 BCE (Before Current Era) - making them more than 2,000 years old.
They focus on the movements of Jupiter, which was important to the Babylonians because of its association with their chief deity, Marduk.
Translating the texts revealed instructions for constructing trapezoid figures which turned out to be key tools used for calculating the planet's position 60 and 120 days after it first appeared in the night sky just before dawn.
The trapezoids were created by plotting graphs of Jupiter's apparent velocity against time.
Calculating the area under the figures made it possible to work out Jupiter's displacement along the ecliptic, the path the sun appears to follow across a background of stars in the course of a year.
The same technique was previously credited to the "Oxford Calculators", an influential group of 14th century thinkers associated with Merton College, Oxford.
The discovery is described in the journal Science by German astrophysicist and historian Professor Mathieu Ossendrijver, from Humboldt University in Berlin.
In a news report accompanying the paper, historian Alexander Jones, from New York University, says: "Such concepts have not been found earlier than in 14th century European texts on moving bodies.
"Their presence .. testifies to the revolutionary brilliance of the unknown Mesopotamian scholars who constructed Babylonian mathematical astronomy."
The Babylonians also went a step further by computing the time at which Jupiter would have moved half-way along its ecliptic path by dividing the 60-day trapezoid into two smaller ones of equal area.
Calculating the area under a curve to determine a numerical value is a basic operation in calculus.