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Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Modernity: How Intelligent Are We?

"That is a truly astonishing find. It's a figure that describes a graph of velocity against time. That is a highly modern concept."
"It anticipates integral calculus. This is utterly familiar to any modern physicist or mathematician."
Mathieu Ossendrijver, professor, Humboldt University, Berlin 
A cuneiform tablet detailing the calculations involving a trapezoid. The distance travelled by Jupiter is computed as the area of a trapezoid.
A cuneiform tablet detailing the calculations involving a trapezoid. The distance travelled by Jupiter is computed as the area of a trapezoid

Fabled Babylon of antiquity nourished civilization, the arts and the sciences. South of where Baghdad now is located, Babylon was a centre of trade and science, a thriving metropolis when Germany and Britain were primitive backwaters. How strange human existence and the element of time become when over the years, one wanes and the other waxes. Germany and Britain have become in modern times the centre of the European universe of culture and technology.

But then, of course, even in modern history there are lessons in human departure from the high standards of civility we pride ourselves on. When Germany which celebrated itself as the European epitome of culture, a social and artistic hierarchy, where literature, music and the plastic arts, science and technology celebrated an apogee of the highest order. From which it descended, through politics and the politics of racism into its own cesspool of inhumanity.

While Iraq has descended from a superior civilization long, long before Islam entered the scene, to become what it now is, a miserable cesspool of tribal and sectarian hatreds scarring history with inhuman atrocities committed by a lunatic interpretation of a religion that celebrates itself as the only true monotheistic religion, deserving of eclipsing all other world religions and in so doing, achieving a conquest that it believes should lead it to command the human race globally.

Before Judaism, Christianity and Islam there were religions that animated the ancient world in the belief that heavenly bodies were manifestations of a horde of supreme beings who controlled human destiny with the universe itself at their command and their timeless residence was above us all. Their home was the celestial dome that arched over the humble abode of humanity. The various gods were allotted specific attributes that equated with natural phenomena.

In this way did enterprising philosophical minds ruminating on theism, explain the mysteries of nature, animated by gods specific to what would otherwise inspire awe and fear. Sometimes these gods were benevolent, more often they were not. It was humankind's lot to appease and to worship and to attempt not to enrage any of those gods for their rage, if provoked would descend in dreadful ways through lightning strikes, hurricanes, wildfires, volcanic eruption, earthquakes and tsunamis.

In the city of ancient Babylon the god of war and death was particularly worshipped as a senior deity, and he was named Marduk. Marduk was identified as a planet high in the evening sky that modern astronomers know as Jupiter. And because Marduk was of such vital importance to the people of that era in human history he was carefully watched, notations made as to Jupiter/Marduk's transit in the night sky.
Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, was equated with Jupiter, so ancient astronomers charted the planet’s path with care.
Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, was equated with Jupiter, so ancient astronomers charted the planet’s path with care.   ©AS400 DB/CORBIS
Inscriptions on a small clay tablet dated between 340 and 50 B.C. now appear to have been transcribed, revealing that astronomers in ancient Babylon used their version of calculus to describe Jupiter's night sky motion. It was always assumed that relatively modern people living in Europe developed the mathematical technique that led to calculus, and they lived 15 centuries after Babylon's influence diminished and disappeared.

Dr. Ossendrijver had his Eureka! moment in archaeological astronomy, which he wrote of, published in an article in the journal Science. Ancient clay tablets, he revealed, verify that the Babylonians had been capable of understanding that a 'curve' on their graph was a representative of the distance travelled by Jupiter across the sky. Their mathematical skills were previously known to have been utilized much as a present-day clerk or accountant would, for routine calculations.

Then it was realized that what appeared to be trapezoid calculations related to astronomical observations were present in some tablets, which in the 1950s an Austrian-American mathematician and science historian described on two tablets. And now, some 70 years later, Dr. Ossendrijver has discovered two more such tablets, which led him to puzzle out what exactly the astronomers had been calculating.

Then, in the British Museum in London, Dr. Ossendrijver saw a tablet hitherto unknown to him with impressions of cuneiform script pressed into clay. While there was no mention of trapezoids, it appeared to record Jupiter's motion, with numbers matching those on the tablets with the trapezoid calculations. "I was certain now it was Jupiter", said Dr. Ossendrijver.

And he realized that Babylonian astronomers had succeeded in calculating the distance Jupiter travelled in the sky from its appearance to its position 60 days on. They split a trapezoid into two smaller ones of equal area  to figure out how long it had taken Jupiter to travel half the distance. A totally abstract concept, that only modern science is given credit for.

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