Babylonians used surprisingly advanced geometry

Research published in the 29 January issue of the journal Science shows that more than 2000 years ago, Babylonian astronomers in what is today Iraq were using unexpectedly advanced mathematics to predict the position of Jupiter.

This is based on a clay tablet probably written sometime between 350 and 50 BCE. That would put it sometime more or less contemporaneous with the Greek geometer Euclid of a few centuries after, which is far later than the time of, say, Hammurabi (in the mid-1700s BCE).

Basically, the Babylonians applied geometry to what amounts to a graph whose dimensions were speed versus time. On such a graph area corresponds to distance. Think of it this way: To compute the area of a rectangle you multiply height times width. If the height represents a speed of 60 miles per hour and the width signifies a span of 5 hours, then the area is 60 times 5, or 300 miles, the distance you travel if you drive at 60 miles an hour for 5 hours. The Babylonian astronomers were working in degrees of angle rather than miles, but the principle is the same.

Even Greek mathematicians of that era limited themselves to dimensions of physical distances, not making a leap into using distance to represent speed. In fact, Europeans didn’t attain that level of mathematical sophistication until the 1300s.

Since a sloped line on a graph of speed versus time corresponds to uniform acceleration, the technique is a significant step in the direction of calculus and Newtonian physics.


For more, see this article by Michelle Hampson and this one by Ron Cowen. The original research paper can be found here, but access the full text requires logging in.

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