Ancient Babylonians Were Centuries Ahead of the World in Astronomy

Emerging nearly four thousand years ago in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), the Babylonians were one of humanity’s first civilizations. Indeed, they constituted a “cradle” of civilization — among the handful of societies that first developed urban centers, sophisticated forms of communication (i.e. writing), and complex sociopolitical systems.

Millennia later, the legacy of the Babylonians continues to impress. According to new research published in Science and reported in ScienceAlert, they had astronomy out long before telescopes even existed. 

[These] ancient Mesopotamian astronomers had not only figured out how to predict Jupiter’s paths more than 1,000 years before the first telescopes existed, but they were using mathematical techniques that would form the foundations of modern calculus as we now know it.

“This shows just how highly developed this ancient culture was,” historian Matthieu Ossendrijver from Humboldt University in Germany told Maddie Stone at Gizmodo. “I don’t think anybody expected something like this would be discovered in a Babylonian text.”

“The now-decoded ‘text A’ describes a procedure for calculating Jupiter’s displacement across the ecliptic plane, the path that the Sun appears to trace through the stars, over the course of a year,” says Maddie Stone at Gizmodo. “According to the text, the Babylonians did so by tracking Jupiter’s speed as a function of time and determining the area under a time-velocity curve.”

[…]

And what’s fascinating is French and British scholars had been using the same technique during the 14th century – using trapezoids to calculate measurements of velocity and displacement – and everyone had assumed it originated with them.

“In 1350, mathematicians understood that if you compute the area under this curve, you get the distance travelled,” Ossendrijver told Gizmodo. “That’s quite an abstract insight about connection between time and motion. What is shown by [these texts] is that this insight came about in Babylonia.”

Pretty neat stuff, to say the least. Who knows what other amazing achievements ancient societies have left to yield?

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