Rostovtzeff Lecture Series: The Sky over Ancient Iraq: Babylonian Astronomy in Context

Lecture III: Algorithms, Tables and Figures: New Insights into Babylonian Mathematical Astronomy

Mathieu Ossendrijver

Humboldt University Berlin

PLEASE NOTE: We are now fully booked for this event and are only accepting names for the wait-list.

Mathieu Ossendrijver is Professor for the History of Ancient Science in the Department of Philosophy at the Humboldt University Berlin. He holds a PhD in Assyriology from the University of Tübingen and a PhD in Astrophysics from the University of Utrecht. His primary research interests are Babylonian astral science and mathematics, Mesopotamian science in general, and contextual aspects of Babylonian scholarship.

Clay tablets from ancient Iraq continue to reveal surprising new insights about Babylonian astronomical and astrological practices during the first millennium BCE. Ever since the first astronomical tablets from Iraq reached the British Museum and other collections at the end of the nineteenth century, Babylonian astral science has attracted the attention of modern specialists. By now, research on this topic has reached a stage where the technical aspects of Babylonian astronomy are relatively well understood, but even here surprises are still possible. The focus of much other research has shifted to various contextual aspects of the Babylonian astral sciences.

In four lectures Mathieu Ossendrijver will explore the textual evidence for Babylonian astronomy during the first millennium BCE, with an emphasis on new textual finds, insights from recent investigations of various corpora of astral science and their interconnections, and questions inspired by new approaches informed by the wider historiography and sociology of science.

The third lecture will present new insights into Babylonian mathematical astronomy, which emerged after about 400 BCE. The underlying mathematical methods for predicting lunar and planetary phenomena are predominantly based on purely arithmetic methods, that is, they operate by manipulating sequences of numbers. However, recent discoveries have corrected this firmly entrenched arithmetic characterization of the Babylonian methods by revealing that some tablets employ geometric concepts in order to compute the distance traveled by a planet. These geometric methods imply a surprisingly deep understanding of the graphical connections between time, velocity and distance on the part of some Babylonian astronomers.

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The Rostovtzeff Lectures are supported in part by a generous endowment fund given by Roger and Whitney Bagnall.

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