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Mathieu Ossendrijver in Science
Mathieu Ossendrijver in Science

Ancient Babylonians Used Geometry to Track the Planets

Mathieu Ossendrijver in Science
Mathieu Ossendrijver in Science

The Babylonians were even more mathematically advanced than we thought. A new report published today in the journal Science concludes that the ancient people may have been using geometry to chart the movements of the planet Jupiter as early as 350 BCE— long before the 14th century, when European astronomers were thought to have pioneered the approach.

These findings are the result of years of work by Mathieu Ossendrijver, who literally wrote the book on the Babylonians’ use of math in astronomy. Ossendrijver has spent more than a decade analyzing the cuneiform markings on a set of stone tablets found in modern-day Iraq. The tablets have been sitting in the collection of the British Museum since 1881.

The Babylonians’ interest in astronomy is well established, but the calculations etched into four nearly complete tablets dating to between 350 BCE and 50 BCE are the first indication that the ancient astronomers had moved beyond simple arithmetic into geometrical concepts. The tablets' creators were focused on tracking Jupiter across the ecliptic, an invisible line that roughly represents the path of the Sun. They based their calculations on a trapezoid’s area, and its “long” and “short” sides. A newly discovered tablet dating to the same era, which has the same computation of Jupiter's movement in an arithmetical formulation, also helped solve the mystery. 

Ossendrijver’s findings represent a radical change in the timeline of astronomy. As the author writes in his report, “These computations predate the use of similar techniques by medieval European scholars by at least 14 centuries.”

The Babylonians were not the only people using geometry at that time, Ossendrijver notes, but they were the only ones using it in such an advanced manner. Greek astronomers like Aristarchus of Samos, Hipparchus, and Ptolemy incorporated geometry into their calculations, but limited their calculations to physical space. Babylonian calculations were more abstract and sophisticated, taking into consideration both velocity and time—an advancement that allowed them to accurately predict the movements of Jupiter along the ecliptic.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Scientists Discover a Mysterious Void in the Great Pyramid of Giza
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The Great Pyramid of Giza, the largest in all of Egypt, was built more than 4500 years ago as the final resting place of the 4th Dynasty pharaoh Khufu (a.k.a. Cheops), who reigned from 2509 to 2483 BCE. Modern Egyptologists have been excavating and studying it for more than a century, but it's still full of mysteries that have yet to be fully solved. The latest discovery, detailed in a new paper in the journal Nature, reveals a hidden void located with the help of particle physics. This is the first time a new inner structure has been located in the pyramid since the 19th century.

The ScanPyramids project, an international endeavor launched in 2015, has been using noninvasive scanning technology like laser imaging to understand Egypt's Old Kingdom pyramids. This discovery was made using muon tomography, a technique that generates 3D images from muons, a by-product of cosmic rays that can pass through stone better than similar technology based on x-rays, like CT scans. (Muon tomography is currently used to scan shipping containers for smuggled goods and image nuclear reactor cores.)

The ScanPyramids team works inside Khufu's Pyramid
ScanPyramids

The newly discovered void is at least 100 feet long and bears a structural resemblance to the section directly below it: the pyramid's Grand Gallery, a long, 26-foot-high inner area of the pyramid that feels like a "very big cathedral at the center of the monument," as engineer and ScanPyramids co-founder Mehdi Tayoubi said in a press briefing. Its size and shape were confirmed by three different muon tomography techniques.

They aren't sure what it would have been used for yet or why it exists, or even if it's one structure or multiple structures together. It could be a horizontal structure, or it could have an incline. In short, there's a lot more to learn about it.

In the past few years, technology has allowed researchers to access parts of the Great Pyramid never seen before. Several robots sent into the tunnels since the '90s have brought back images of previously unseen areas. Almost immediately after starting to examine the Great Pyramid with thermal imaging in 2015, the researchers discovered that some of the limestone structure was hotter than other parts, indicating internal air currents moving through hidden chambers. In 2016, muon imaging indicated that there was at least one previously unknown void near the north face of Khufu's pyramid, though the researchers couldn't identify where exactly it was or what it looked like. Now, we know its basic structure.

A rendering shows internal chambers within the Great Pyramid and the approximate structure of the newly discovered void.
ScanPyramids

"These results constitute a breakthrough for the understanding of Khufu's Pyramid and its internal structure," the ScanPyramids team writes in Nature. "While there is currently no information about the role of this void, these findings show how modern particle physics can shed new light on the world's archaeological heritage."

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travel
For the First Time in 40 Years, Rome's Colosseum Will Open Its Top Floor to the Public
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The Colosseum’s nosebleed seats likely didn’t provide plebeians with great views of gladiatorial contests and other garish spectacles. But starting in November, they’ll give modern-day tourists a bird's-eye look at one of the world’s most famous ancient wonders, according to The Telegraph.

The tiered amphitheater’s fifth and final level will be opened up to visitors for the first time in several decades, following a multi-year effort to clean, strengthen, and restore the crumbling attraction. Tour guides will lead groups of up to 25 people to the stadium’s far-flung reaches, and through a connecting corridor that’s never been opened to the public. (It contains the vestiges of six Roman toilets, according to The Local.) At the summit, which hovers around 130 feet above the gladiator pit below, tourists will get a rare glimpse at the stadium’s sloping galleries, and of the nearby Forum and Palatine Hill.

In ancient Rome, the Colosseum’s best seats were marble benches that lined the amphitheater’s bottom level. These were reserved for senators, emperors, and other important parties. Imperial functionaries occupied the second level, followed by middle-class spectators, who sat behind them. Traders, merchants, and shopkeepers enjoyed the show from the fourth row, and the very top reaches were left to commoners, who had to clamber over steep stairs and through dark tunnels to reach their sky-high perches.

Beginning November 1, 2017, visitors will be able to book guided trips to the Colosseum’s top levels. Reservations are required, and the tour will cost around $11, on top of the normal $14 admission cost. (Gladiator fights, thankfully, are not included.)

[h/t The Telegraph]

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