Ancient Babylonians used geometry to track Jupiter

"These computations anticipate the use of similar techniques by European scholars," said researcher Mathieu Ossendrijver.
By Brooks Hays  |  Jan. 28, 2016 at 4:14 PM
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BERLIN, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- New translations and analysis of ancient tablets suggest the ancient Babylonians used geometry, not simple arithmetic, to track the path of Jupiter.

The tablets are dated to between 350 and 50 B.C., some 1,400 years prior to what scientists previously thought was the first use of geometry in Europe.

"The new interpretation reveals that Babylonian astronomers also used geometrical methods," Mathieu Ossendrijver, a researcher at Humboldt University in Germany, confirmed in a press release.

Ossendrijver's research was published this week in the journal Science.

Four of the tablets have been known since their discovery in Babylon, near the temple Esagila, in the 19th century. But the more recent emergence of a 5th tablet helped illuminate the mathematics described on the first four.

No drawings or shapes are included on the tablets, but Ossendrijver analysis suggest they describe in Cuneiform script how Babylonian mathematicians visualized Jupiter's path in the form of a trapezoid. The trapezoid was formed by plotting the two main variables, Jupiter's velocity over time.

The area of the graphed trapezoid represents the distance Jupiter travels in 60 days. The mathematicians could divide the trapezoid in half to determine the distance traveled in 30 days.

"These computations anticipate the use of similar techniques by European scholars, but they were carried out at least 14 centuries earlier," said Ossendrijver.

Greek mathematicians also used trapezoids, but only to calculate actual space. The Babylonian technique uses the trapezoid in an abstract sense -- its variables speed and time, not the width and height of a coliseum.

"Ancient Greek astronomers used a lot of geometrical techniques, but the geometrical figures that they use are always situated in a real space, with either two- or three-spatial dimensions," Ossendrijver explained. "The Babylonian geometrical methods discussed here involve figures that are defined in a more abstract mathematical space obtained by drawing velocity against time, almost in a modern fashion."

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