'Astonishing' Clay Tablet May Rewrite Math History

Babylonian insights predate calculus
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 29, 2016 8:22 AM CST
(A) Full image. (B) Partial image of the right side taken under different lighting conditions.   (Science / Mathieu Ossendrijver)

(Newser) – A newly deciphered clay tablet from ancient Babylon has science writers buzzing because it just might "rewrite the history of mathematics," as Live Science puts it. The tablet shows that Babylonians were using sophisticated geometric principles to track the path of Jupiter in the sky, says researcher Mathieu Ossendrijver of Humboldt University in Berlin, who deciphered the tablet and published his findings in Science. What's intriguing is that these early astronomers wrote their calculations sometime between 350BC and 50BC—at least 1,400 years earlier than the European mathematicians who currently get credit for inventing the technique, reports NPR. The upshot is that the Babylonians were dabbling in abstract principles dealing with Jupiter's velocity and position relative to other stars in the sky, and they described that movement using a "sort of precalculus," in the words of the New York Times. "It is an application in astronomy that was totally new," says Ossendrijver.

He calls it "truly an astonishing find," and while he may be biased, others in the field seem equally wowed. "I think it's quite a remarkable discovery," says a professor at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. The Times has a layman's explainer: "The Babylonians were calculating the distance Jupiter traveled in the sky from its appearance to its position 60 days later. Using the technique of splitting a trapezoid into two smaller ones of equal area, they then figured out how long it took Jupiter to travel half that distance." Babylonians were known to be talented astronomers and mathematicians, but the small tablet takes them far above previous estimations, observes National Geographic. "This geometrical trick rewrites the history books." (Scientists are getting closer to unraveling an ancient Incan technique as well.)

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