Saw this on my round of online newspaper reading, article at The Washington Post:
Clay Tablets Reveal Babylonians Discovered Astronomical Geometry 1,400 Years Before Europeans
By Joel Achenbach
January 28, 2016
These tablets are quite incomprehensible to the untrained eye. Thousands of clay tablets — many unearthed in the 19th century by adventurers hoping to build museum collections in Europe, the United States and elsewhere — remain undeciphered.
But they are fertile ground for Mathieu Ossendrijver of Humboldt University in Berlin, whose remarkable findings were published Thursday in the journal Science. Ossendrijver is an astrophysicist who became an expert in the history of ancient science.
Then one day in late 2014, a retired archaeologist gave him some black-and-white photographs of tablets stored at the museum. Ossendrijver took notice of one of them, just two inches across and two inches high. This rounded object, which he scrutinized in person in September 2015, proved to be a kind of Rosetta Stone.
|Text A. (Trustees of the British Museum/Mathieu Ossendrijver)|
The people of Mesopotamia — what is now Iraq — developed mathematics about 5,000 years ago. Among them were the Babylonians who wrote in cunieform script and, over time, adopted a sexagesimal (base 60) numbering system. Early mathematics was essentially a form of counting, and the things being counted were mostly sheep and the like.
But Ossendrijver said nothing in the newly decoded computations suggests that the ancient scientist or scientists who etched the tablets understood that heliocentric model. The calculations merely describe Jupiter's motion over time as it appears to speed up and slow down in its journey across the night sky. Those calculations are done in a surprisingly abstract way — the same way the Oxford mathematicians would do them a millennium and a half later.
“It's geometry, which is itself old, but it's applied in a completely new way, not to fields, or something that lives in real space, but to something that exists in completely abstract space," Ossendrijver said. "Anybody who studies physics would be reminded of integral calculus."
Alexander Jones, a professor at New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, praised Ossendrijver's research, which he said in an email shows the "revolutionary brilliance of the unknown Mesopotamian scholars who constructed Babylonian mathematical astronomy during the second half of the first millennium BC."
Anthropologist Alexander Nagel of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, after reviewing the new paper, wrote in an email, "I think Mathieu's article shows very well the complexities modern researchers encounter (and have to master) in understanding what immense knowledge the communities by the Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq had."