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Ancient Babylonians used geometry to track Jupiter long before the Europeans

Ian Harvey

Recent research suggests that Ancient Babylonians were the first people to ever use geometry. The ancient people used geometry while tracking Jupiter across the night sky. Researchers previously thought that the original use of geometrical techniques began in the 14th century.

One of the researchers working on this at the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, Professor Mathieu Ossendrijver, said that he was not expecting this. What is even more amazing is that geometry is fundamental to physics, and all branches of science use this method at one point or another. The idea of the Ancient Babylonians using this math centuries ago is mind-boggling.

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Trustees of the British Museum Mathieu Ossendrijver

Ancient Babylonians once lived in what is now known as Iraq and Syria. The civilization of the ancient people emerged around the year of 1800 BC. Clay tablets that have been found previously with cuneiform suggesting that the people were advanced in astronomy.

The clay tablet shown suggests that the figure, a rectangle with a slanted top, shows how the velocity of a planet, which happens to be Jupiter, changes with time.

Ossendrijver told the BBC news that the people wrote reports on what they saw in the sky, documenting all of their new findings. He also said that they did this over a long period of time. Historians know that they had documented everything for centuries. They had used curves to trace the position and velocity of moving objects.

The latest research suggests that these ancient people knew a lot more about math than later civilizations. Many believed that complex geometry was used by scholars in Oxford and Paris during the medieval times. However, scientists believe that the Babylonians developed the technique around 350 BC.

Ossendrijver had examined five Babylonian tablets that were excavated in the 19th century before being held in the British Museum’s archives. He noticed the people used four-sided shapes, also known as trapezoids, in order to calculate when Jupiter would appear in the night sky. They were also able to calculate the speed and distance the planet traveled.

He also added that at one point during this period, there was most likely one genius who figured out the movements of the planet. This genius also came up with geometry itself, proving that it worked best to calculate the movements of those planets.

He also explained that we have a figure where one axis, the horizontal side, represents time. The other axis, the vertical side, represents the velocity. The area of the trapezoid indicates and represents the distance traveled by Jupiter along its orbit.

Ossendrijver explained one of the greatest findings in this new research. He said that the most special piece of information is that the type of graph is unknown from antiquity. Making figures of motion in this abstract way, as the Babylonians did, is quite abstract. They compared the space of velocity against time, which is something very new to any researcher, scientist, and historian.

He also explained that there was evidence that the Greeks used a “more straightforward” form of geometry. This dealt with spatial relationships between Earth and the planets instead of the concepts of time and velocity.

As much as Ossendrijver recently figured out about the Ancient Babylonians, he is still unsure as to how common this geometrical technique was among the people. He explained that there could have only been one genius who came up with the tablet of Jupiter and came up with the new form of astronomy and geometry. Or it could have been thought up by several different scholars who worked together to form this new type of science for predicting the planets.

Ossendrijver is not sure scholars will ever know the actual truth regarding it. However, with this new piece of information, other scholars, scientists, and mathematicians have the chance to study the newly-found techniques in more depth.