October 1, 2023
Through the early mathematical and philosophical learnings made by classical and ancient civilizations, we’ve come to better acquaint ourselves with the machinations of our Universe.
It’s no secret that much of our knowledge of the Universe was closely related to the fundamental discoveries both in Math and Science. Astronomy has proven especially resourceful in how we’ve been able to comprehend our place in the never-ending cosmos.
Despite the few early misconceptions, there have been many astronomers, mathematicians, and philosophers who’ve produced profound learnings we still apply today. Some of the most influential minds in math and astronomy derived from classical and ancient civilizations such as Greece, Rome, Babylonia, Egypt, even China, and India.
There’s distinctive material evidence to prove Babylonia was among the first to adopt mathematical practices when studying celestial occurrences. Back when they utilized cuneiform tablets (a pictographic system) for writing and recording, the Babylonians left behind various charts to indicate they were geometrically calculating astronomical placements!
The Babylonians, around 300 to 400 BC, started to use math as a way to calculate what is now known as the Zodiac chart! They divided the path of the Sun, Moon, and planets equally into 12 “phases”, then named them based upon nearby constellations. This was one of their many ways to compute where the planets, Sun, and Moon were which helped them eventually decipher what time of year it was!
It was one of the first and more advanced exemplifications of math being applied to astronomical affairs, but certainly not the last. Their early strategies centered around mathematical astronomy helped them calculate predictions of the position and track of Jupiter’s orbit!
The Babylonians, as well as the Egyptians, went on to adopt early astronomical calculations to formulate advanced calendars. They were the civilizations to primarily adopt astrology to better understand the machinations of our Universe. Unlike the earlier Mesopotamian communities, the Romans and Greeks used math and astronomy for other purposes.
Early Romans were very familiar with celestial beings! Ptolemy, a prominent Egyptian philosopher (when Egypt was under Rome’s rule) was most known for formulating an Earth-centric depiction of our solar system. Ptolemy’s findings were so heavily inspirational to the Romans, they even created mythological figures to represent their understanding of the planets!
The ancient Romans interpreted the role of the seven planets (they knew at the time): the Moon, the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. It was the Greeks who ended up naming the planets, however, the Romans applied their own gods’ names to fit their narrative. We typically refer to these planets as their Roman names:
- Mercury (aka Mercurius): named after the god of commerce, eloquence, travelers,
- Venus: named after the goddess of love for its bright light and softer appearance
- Mars: for the god of war, rightfully named due to the planet’s bold red color
- Jupiter: the biggest planet in the system named for the head Roman deity, the god of sky and thunder, and King of the Roman gods in their mythology
- Saturn: the father of Jupiter, god of agriculture. Fun fact: based on Ptolemy’s model, Saturn is also named after Saturday (Saturn’s day)
Once the other planets in our solar system were discovered, they also received names in conjunction with Roman mythology. Uranus was named for the Roman personification of the sky, while Neptune was named after the god of the sea for its beautiful blue-green hue.
The Romans weren’t just accredited with naming the solar system; they created our current and most used yearly calendar! Before they adopted a prominent amount of Greek astronomy, the Romans paid meticulous attention to the placements of stars and planets in the sky to determine the lunar cycle. This aided them in growing a ten-month cycle to the twelve-month cycle.
Much of our current understanding of astronomy would be nowhere without the Greeks. They were able to provide many other civilizations with specific findings of more minute planetary aspects at the time- for instance, our own Earth. Because the helio-centric depiction of our solar system didn’t arise until the discoveries of Copernicus (1473-1543), the Greeks took observational astronomy to try and detail more about Earth.
One of Greece’s innovative philosophers and mathematicians, Pythagoras, pushed many discoveries forward with his work. However, he based many of his revelations on mathematical perfectionism rather than genuine quantitative reasoning. For instance, Pythagoras was the first to propose that the Earth was spherical not because it made “sense”, but because the sphere is considered a “perfect” 3D shape.
Pythagoras was not the only Greek to hypothesize major astronomical functions. Along came Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC) with his much more realistic contributions revolving around the Earth’s role in our Universe. He was the inspiration for Copernicus’s work.
Aristarchus focused mostly on the movement of the Earth and its size concerning both the Sun and Moon through eclipses! He procured three core premises that helped him articulate his findings.
While observing a lunar eclipse, Aristarchus confirmed through geometrical analysis that the size of Earth’s shadow on the moon further proves that the Sun is of greater size than the Earth. Although Aristarchus made true statements about the measurements of our planet & its surroundings, he still followed the inaccurate geocentric model of our solar system (rather than the heliocentric one).
Many many years passed before math and astronomy were applied to the RIGHT depiction of our solar system. Thanks to Copernicus and his proposal of an accurate heliocentric model, we were able to better detail why our Earth experiences the natural occurrences it does and how it affects other planets in our system.
It took quite a long time, and many other astronomers, to apply relevant math to confirm our place in the Universe. However, without the ancient and classical civilizations passionate about investigating our vast world, we would not have a strong basis to formulate our findings.