In DepthArchaeology

Ancient Babylonians took first steps to calculus

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Science  29 Jan 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6272, pp. 435
DOI: 10.1126/science.351.6272.435

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Ancient Babylonian astronomers used their observations plus simple arithmetic to predict the positions of celestial bodies. Now, new evidence reported on p. 482 reveals that these astronomers, working several centuries B.C.E., also employed sophisticated geometric methods that foreshadow the development of calculus, more than 1400 years earlier than expected. Astroarchaeologist Mathieu Ossendrijver of Humboldt University in Berlin based his findings on a re-examination of clay tablets, one of them unknown until recently, dating from 350 B.C.E. to 50 B.C.E. He discovered that the ancient astronomers charted the movements of Jupiter, the planet equated with Babylonian's chief god, and used a forerunner of calculus to do it: They calculated the area under a curve—a basic operation in calculus—in a graph of Jupiter's velocity versus time. And they did it more than 2000 years ago.

  • * Ron Cowen is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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