Babylonian tablets use modern math to describe planet’s path
Even before telescopes had been invented, astronomers already had one of their most important tools available: math. With observations from the the naked eye, ancient astronomers were able to accurately chart a variety of objects, keeping track of them with surprisingly sophisticated methodology. One such method has recently been realized to be much older than previously understood, thanks to a recent translation of some Babylonian cuneiform tablets.
The set of five clay tablets, each just over a square inch in size, have long been in the collection of the British Museum, but only recently understood to be describing the orbit of the planet Jupiter. Part of the delay in their translation was that follow the planet using mathematical concepts that weren’t thought to have been invented until the Middle Ages. It wasn’t until four of the tablets were associated with the fifth that the content became clear, as that tablet discussed the same orbit, but in a more immediately recognizable manner.
Calculus in cuneiform
That’s not to say that this method of plotting Jupiter’s orbit was some oddball technique, exclusive to ancient Babylon. It’s actually how many modern physicists would chart such data today. While no graphs are present on the tablet, the writing carefully describes charting the planet’s movement with time on one axis, and the degree of change over each day on the other. The resulting graph would then be a sort of trapezoidal shape, rather than the smooth curves astronomers in ancient Greece would have used, but been no less accurate or useful.
Paper weights or cultural cornerstones?
Unfortunately, it’s hard to say what role this advanced math played in Babylonian astronomy. The tablets were collected long ago, and were not probably cataloged to indicate if they were found in a temple, school or private residence, and so it’s hard to gauge their influence. It is known that Babylonians studied astronomy carefully, thanks to thousands of other pieces of writing on the planets and stars. By 350 BCE, Jupiter in particular was associated with the god Marduk. Given that god’s prominence in the Babylonian parthenon it’s not unlikely careful orbital measurements would have been of great interest at the time, even if the methods behind those measurements would later fade away until being reininvented again in Europe.
Source: Ancient Babylonian Astronomers Were Way Ahead of Their Time by Kiona Smith-Strickland, D-brief