Babylon’s mathematical magic: Seeking answers in the stars

Babylonians to Brahe, Newton, Parr, Einstein, and Clarke - All great men looking to the cosmos in wonder.

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Babylonian clay tablet 322 in the Columbia University collection.

WASHINGTON, August 25, 2017 — Until recently, ancient Greek mathematicians Menelaus and Hipparchus were credited with developing trigonometry. But an ancient Babylonian clay tablet in the collection of Columbia University, known as number 322, contains chicken-scratches (cuneiform writing) discovered to be a trigonometric table almost 4,000 years old.

Babylon reconstruction made for the Mesopotamia exhibition of the Royal Ontario Museum & British Museum.

Science historian Asger Aaboe believes Babylonian mathematics advanced celestial observation…

“… in the Hellenistic world, in India, in Islam, and in the West – if not indeed all subsequent endeavor in the exact sciences – depend upon Babylonian astronomy in decisive and fundamental ways.”

In his dramatic narrative on the history of archaeology, “Gods, Graves & Scholars,” C.W. Ceram is disparaging of Mesopotamian reckoning:


“Babylonian mathematics was unquestionably infected with astrological lore and soothsaying. The least desirable part of Sumerian and Babylonian heritage is a pervasive superstition, a tendency to invest the smallest things and happenings with a magical connotation. At times, the preoccupation with magic became a kind of religious madness which found ominous manifestation in the transports of witchcraft.”

But a great man of science, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), who was also a royal astrologer, inspired his assistant Johannes Kepler to develop his three laws of planetary motion.

Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1726), who built the first reflecting telescope, discovered the influence of gravity on planetary motion, was instrumental in the development of calculus, also engaged in alchemical experiments that may have resulted in his mercury poisoning and temporary madness.

Sir Isaac Newton.

And Jack Parsons (1914-1952), rocket engineer and principle founder of Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Aerojet Engineering Corporation, was a devotee of occultist Aleister Crowley (“The Wickedest Man”). Parsons was known to dance and sing his spiritual leader’s “Hymn to Pan” before each rocket test launch.

Rocket scientist Jack Parsons.

The Oxford Dictionary defines mysticism as a “reliance on spiritual intuition as the means of acquiring knowledge.”

Strangely, that mirrors Albert Einstein’s observation that the “most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is good as dead.”

Albert Einstein (left) and Arthur C. Clarke.

Babylon’s early mathematical formulas, in service of its pantheon of gods, attempted to unmask the mysteries of nature, which proved the starting pistol in a race leading to the magical advances in today’s science.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology,” said Arthur C. Clarke, “is indistinguishable from magic.”

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