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Mesopotamian science

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The development of astronomy and science through the empires of Mesopotamia

The history part of this outline comes from Houghton Mifflin Historical-Social Science: World History: Ancient Civilizations: Eduplace Social studies review: LS_6_04_01

The integration with science standards was developed by R. Kaiser.

This historical overview is brief, and by necessity, highly simplified.

Akkadian era – 3000 – 2000 BCE.

Sumerian city-state kings fought over land from 3000 to 2000 B.C.
Sargon of Akkad was powerful leader, creator of worldʼs first empire – took over northern and southern Mesopotamia around 2350 B.C. – empire—many different peoples, lands controlled by one ruler (emperor) The Akkadian Empire
Sargonʼs empire was called Akkadian Empire
Included the Fertile Crescent—lands from Mediterranean Sea to Persian Gulf
Known for rich soil, water, and good farming
Sargonʼs conquests spread Akkadian ideas, culture, writing system
Empires encourage trade and may bring peace to their peoples
Peoples of several cultures share ideas, technology, customs.

Science & Mathematics

As early as 2000 BCE, Babylonians used pre-calculated tables to assist with arithmetic such as:

This kind of math later became useful for their early astronomy. They developed advanced forms of geometry, some of which was used in astronomy.

Metallurgy : This is one of the origins of Chemistry.


“made substantial advances in crafting higher quality bronze tools and weapons.
It took trade to relatively distant places – because tin ore caches are sparse – to create tin-alloy bronze.
This was the standard to aim for in the ancient world – and also prevented metal-smiths from developing limps and dying of gradual arsenic poisoning. (not joking)”
– https://www.quora.com/What-were-some-of-the-achievements-of-the-Akkadian-Empire-Which-have-lasted-in-modern-times

Babylonian era

Let’s look at this same area. in its larger geographical context:

Very similar to the Akkadians. 1792-1749 BCE.
King Hammurabi of Babylon is a major figure.
• Akkadian Empire lasted about 200 years
• Amorites invaded Sumer about 2000 B.C., chose Babylon as capital
• Hammurabi—powerful Amorite king who ruled from 1792 to 1750 B.C.
– extended empire across Mesopotamia, Fertile Crescent
– appointed governors, tax collectors, judges to control lands
– watched over agriculture, trade, construction

Babylonians recognize that astronomical phenomena are periodic (e.g. the annual cycle of the Earth-Sun system)

The motion of the moon, and tides, are more examples of periodic phenomenon

Tide Lunar animation
Although they did not know the physical reasons why such patterns existed, they discovered the mathematical periodicity of both lunar and solar eclipses.


Centuries of Babylonian observations of celestial phenomena are recorded in the series of cuneiform tablets known as the Enûma Anu Enlil
Astronomical studies of the planet Venus
Writing of the “Mul Apin” clay tablets, catalogs of stars and constellations, heliacal rising dates of stars, constellations and planets

Babylonian cosmology

They developed a view of the universe in which our Earth was essentially flat, with several layers of heavens above, and several layers of underworlds below.

This diagram roughly shows their view of the universe – but note that this image is not meant to be geocentric. They didn’t imply that our world is the center of the universe; this was just what the universe was imagined to be like, locally.  The idea that our Earth is literally the center of the entire universe (geocentrism) didn’t develop until the later Greek era, circa the time of Aristotle.


“A six-level universe consisting of three heavens and three earths:
two heavens above the sky, the heaven of the stars, the earth, the underground of the Apsu, and the underworld of the dead.
The Earth was created by the god Marduk as a raft floating on fresh water (Apsu), surrounded by a vastly larger body of salt water (Tiamat).
The gods were divided into two pantheons, one occupying the heavens and the other in the underworld. ”
– History of cosmology, from Astronomy 123: Galaxies and the Expanding Universe

Assyrian empire 850 – 609 BCE

• Assyrian Empire replaced Babylonian Empire
• Located in hilly northern Mesopotamia
– built powerful horse and chariot army to protect lands
– soldiers were the only ones in the area to use iron swords, spear tips
– used battering rams, ladders, tunnels to get past city walls
• Assyrians were cruel to defeated peoples
• Enemies who surrendered were allowed to choose a leader.
Enemies who resisted were taken captive, and killed or enslaved.
• Enemy leaders were killed, cities burned
• Captured peoples were sent into exile
• Assyrian Empire fell in 609 B.C.
– defeated by combined forces of the Medes and Chaldeans
– victors burned the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh


Astronomers of their day discovered a repeating 18-year Saros cycle of lunar eclipses


(data for this GIF is from http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/SEsaros/SEsaros101.html)

Chaldean Empire/Neo-Babylonian empire 625 – 539 BCE

• Chaldeans ruled much of former Assyrian Empire
– sometimes called New Babylonians because Babylon was capital
• Chaldean empire peaked from 605 to 562 B.C. under Nebuchadnezzar II
– took Mediterranean trading cities, drove Egyptians out of Syria
• Nebuchadnezzar seized Jerusalem when the Hebrews rebelled in 598 B.C.
– destroyed the Jewish people’s Temple in Jerusalem, and held many captive in Babylon for about 50 years. (Many Jews returned to their homeland under Cyrus the Great.)
At the height of their wealth and power, the Chaldeans:
• Nebuchadnezzar built Babylonʼs Ishtar Gate, Tower of Babel ziggurat
• Built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of Seven Wonders of the World
– an artificial mountain covered with trees, plants
The Empire Fades
• Weak rulers followed Nebuchadnezzar II
• Internal conflicts over religion divided Chaldean people
– made it easy for Cyrus The Great, King of Persia to conquer land


(to be added)

Post-Chaldean Babylonians

Jesse Emspak, in the Smithsonian, “Babylonians Were Using Geometry Centuries Earlier Than Thought” 1/28/16

As one of the brightest objects in the night sky, the planet Jupiter has been a source of fascination since the dawn of astronomy. Now a cuneiform tablet dating to between 350 and 50 B.C. shows that Babylonians not only tracked Jupiter, they were taking the first steps from geometry toward calculus to figure out the distance it moved across the sky.

Obliquity of the Nine Planets

Obliquity of the Nine Planets http://solarviews.com/eng/solarsys.htm

Mathieu Ossendrijver of Humboldt University in Berlin found the tablet while combing through the collections at the British Museum. The written record gives instructions for estimating the area under a curve by finding the area of trapezoids drawn underneath. Using those calculations, the tablet shows how to find the distance Jupiter has traveled in a given interval of time.



The distance travelled by Jupiter after 60 days, 10º45′,
computed as the area of the trapezoid whose top left corner is Jupiter’s velocity over the course of the first day, in distance per day, and its top right corner is Jupiter’s velocity on the 60th day.
In a second calculation, the trapezoid is divided into two smaller ones,
with equal area to find the time in which Jupiter covers half this distance.

Photo credit: Trustees of the British Museum/Mathieu Ossendrijver

Until now, this kind of use of trapezoids wasn’t known to exist before the 14th century.

“What they are doing is applying it to astronomy in a totally new way,” Ossendrijver says. “The trapezoid figure is not in real space and doesn’t describe a field or a garden, it describes an object in mathematical space—velocity against time.”

Scholars already knew that Babylonians could find the area of a trapezoid, and that they were quite familiar with the motions of planets and the moon. Previous records show that they used basic arithmetic—addition, subtraction, multiplication and division—to track these celestial bodies.

By 400 B.C. Babylonian astronomers had worked out a coordinate system using the ecliptic, the region of the sky the sun and planets move through, Ossendrijver says. They even invented the use of degrees as 360 fractions of a circle based on their sexagesimal, or base 60, counting system. What wasn’t clear was whether the Babylonians had a concept of objects in abstract mathematical space.

The trapezoid method involves learning the rate at which Jupiter moves and then plotting the planet’s speed against a set number of days on an x-y graph. The result should be a curve on the graph. Figuring out the area of trapezoids under this curve gives a reasonable approximation of how many degrees the planet has moved in a given period.
Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/ancient-babylonians-were-using-geometry-centuries-earlier-thought-180957965/#mZ1dTRBAhrGx6wA6.99
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv
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Babylonians Were Using Geometry Centuries Earlier Than Thought, Smithsonian Magazine

External references

Babylonian Astronomy, Wikipedia article


Learning Standards

2016 Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework

Understandings about the Nature of Science:  Science knowledge has a history that includes the refinement of, and changes to, theories, ideas, and beliefs over time.

Science Is a Human Endeavor:  Scientific knowledge is a result of human endeavor,
imagination, and creativity. Individuals and teams from many nations and cultures have contributed to science and to advances in engineering.

Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework

Mesopotamia: Site of several ancient river civilizations circa 3500–1200 BCE
7.10 Describe the important achievements of Mesopotamian civilization.

Next Generation Science Standards

HS-ESS1 Earth’s Place in the Universe
Construct an explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from a variety of sources (including students’ own investigations, theories, simulations, peer review) and the assumption that theories and laws that describe the natural world operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future. (HS-ESS1-2)
Apply scientific reasoning to link evidence to the claims to assess the extent to which the reasoning and data support the explanation or conclusion. (HS-ESS1-6)

Engaging in Argument from Evidence: Use appropriate and sufficient evidence and scientific reasoning to defend and critique claims and explanations about the natural and designed world(s). Arguments may also come from current scientific or historical episodes in science.

Connections to Nature of Science:
Science Models, Laws, Mechanisms, and Theories Explain Natural Phenomena.
A scientific theory is a substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment, and the science community validates each theory before it is accepted. If new evidence is discovered that the theory does not accommodate, then the theory is generally modified in light of this new evidence. (HS-ESS1-2),(HS-ESS1-6)


Next Gen Science Standards




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