They were also talented astronomers, maintaining nightly catalogs detailed enough to record the passage of Halley’s comet. Babylonians regularly used arithmetic to boost their astronomical predictions.
But no one had ever found a Babylonian astronomical calculation that leveraged their impressive knowledge of pure geometry, until Mathieu Ossendrijver of Germany’s Humboldt University of Berlin spent 13 years deciphering what he described as a “small bunch of four weird trapezoid computations” between 2,000 and 2,400 years old.
Ossendrijver was the first to notice that the tablets—stored in the British Museum since the 1880s—had something to do with the planet Jupiter. However, they didn’t make much sense without knowing how the Babylonians encoded aspects of Jupiter’s motion, such as its appearances on the horizon.
Such a find also speaks to the human spirit of discovery—both of the ancient astronomers who gazed at the heavens, and the modern researchers who seek to reconstruct their understanding of the cosmos.