Photo credit: Trustees of the British Museum/Mathieu Ossendrijver; NASA
By Kenneth Chang
For people living in the ancient city of Babylon, Marduk was their patron god, and thus it is not a surprise that Babylonian astronomers took an interest in tracking the comings and goings of the planet Jupiter, which they regarded as a celestial manifestation of Marduk.
What is perhaps more surprising is the sophistication with which they tracked the planet, judging from inscriptions on a small clay tablet dating to between 350 B.C. and 50 B.C. The tablet, a couple of inches wide and a couple of inches tall, reveals that the Babylonian astronomers employed a sort of precalculus in describing Jupiter’s motion across the night sky relative to the distant background stars. Until now, credit for this kind of mathematical technique had gone to Europeans who lived some 15 centuries later.
“That is a truly astonishing find,” said Mathieu Ossendrijver, a professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, who describes his archaeological astronomy discovery in an article on Thursday in the journal Science.
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