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Antikythera for Christmas

Matt can keep his Kindle — I’ll take one of these:

I seriously want to know more about the early history of astronomy. Less the sociology than the psychology of it – what was it that led humans to devote themselves to such long-term, precise observations? A belief in the power of distant gods? Boredom? The urge to find certainty somewhere, anywhere in the cosmos?

Via HNN/Ralph Luker.


Shawn says…

It really depends on what you mean by astronomy. We know next to nothing about Sumerian astronomy. Mesopotamian astronomy that has survived is aggregated in a series of texts “Enuma Anu Enlil” and consists of about 70 numbered tablets with a total of about 7000 meterological and astronomical observations. This canonization extended over several centuries, the final form we have ending about 1000 B.C. Historians compare it to the aggregation of papal bullae in the Middle ages.

There are rational astronomical texts like the “mul apin” dating from around 700 BC that is still pretty descriptive but is also quite rationally schematic in nature.

Babylonian mathematical astronomy is fully developed around 300 B.C. and the fundamental problem it seeks to address is the lunar calendar. This forms the basis for a powerful mathematical system and is really the earliest mathematical astronomy of any precision outside of generic Egyptian calendars.

So I guess to answer your question, the earliest “astronomy” is for two purposes, delineating history and eliciting omnia and portents. Mostly because that’s what the ruling class were paying for. I think the causes were the same that motivates the idle rich today, delineating time as it passes and explaining one’s own nobility in terms of causes greater than yourself.

Otto Neugebauer is pretty good resource on early mathematical astronomy.

before I left Cambridge for the tropics, I visited the Whipple Science Museum (which if you are ever in the area you should DEFINITELY check out, for it is mad and wonderful), and they had a tiny, special exhibition on the Antikythera (literally, one table). Next to the table was a television playing a mindblowing documentary about the Antikythera on loop. And on the table were life-size card models of the major fragments of the Antikythera. I think there were about nine. And you could sit there and try and figure out how they might get put together. It was awesome!

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