Babylonians observed, so beat Victorians

WHETHER IT’S A RELIGIOUS or a scientific reason that makes people watch the skies does not, in the end, much matter.

The Babylonians, for example, produced 10s, perhaps 100s of thousands of clay tablets over the period the civilisation lasted. The British Museum picked up a huge amount of these in the Victorian era, and they are stored safely,  perhaps never to be translated. There can’t be many scholars these days that understand the wedges put into clay tablets.

Arthur Koestler, an avowed atheist in his  The Sleepwalkers, pointed out that magic and science were indistinguishable in those days. Very annoyingly, I can’t find my own Penguin edition  of The Sleepwalkers, because this house is filled with way too many books. So I’ll have to go on memory. Victorian astronomers were shocked to find that the ephemerides of the Babylonians on the clay tablets the Brits unearthed were way more accurate than their own about the planetary positions of the then known planets.

The Greeks called the Babylonians “Chaldeans”, mistakenly, and before we knew where we were we had epicycles and all sorts of ridiculous theories about why the planets went retrograde.  Observation is good.

Take for example these pix – made by our former sparring partner, ex-Rambus employee Richard Crisp. They record some facts in the universe. As the universe is bigger than us, trying to understand what any of it means is difficult even given our large roof brain. But they speak to all of us, don’t they?

They are here, here, here and here.  I have written software to compute the positions of the Sun, the Moon and the planets in the past, much aided by books such as the Textbook on Spherical Astronomy by W.M. Smart (he was), the Astronomical Almanac, published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, Practical Astronomy with your Calculator by Peter Duffet-Smith. Perturbations are extraordinary effects and the calculations required are mind boggling.  Let us not talk about Brownian movements. Computers have made such things so much easier. Φ

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