Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ancient Knowledge in the Old World

Against the common objection that ancient societies hardly possessed a rudimentary technical knowledge, there is increasing evidence that they actually had such advanced skills in mathematics and astronomy that only recently, after long and dark millennia, have been equaled or improved.

Such is the case, for instance, of India, whose knowledge in astronomy was so advanced that it became the ultimate goal for wisdom seekers. A very old jyotisha, Brahma–gupta, deals among others issues with such topics as the motion of the planets around the Sun, the ecliptic obliquity, the spherical shape of the Earth, the light reflected from the Moon, the Earth revolution on its axis, the presence of stars in the Milky Way, the law of gravitation – all of which would not see the light in Europe until the time of Copernicus and Newton.

In turn, Surya–siddhanta informs us that the Earth, a globe that moves through space, has a diameter length equivalent to 12,617 present-day kilometers – an extent fairly approximate to the one calculated in our days.

Now, while there exist most advanced conceptions of the space–time dislocation and the current expansion of the Universe, all data pertaining to the period of precession of the equinoxes seem to have been disguised by means of a most peculiar symbolic language, even though a careful inspection of certain texts – for example, Bhagavata Purana 5, 21:4 – will let discern its length approximately. Anyway, I have already said that it was probably in India where Hipparcus obtained his knowledge of this phenomenon, in the same way that Aristarchus of Samos received a much less sophisticated one but which scandalized his generation, even though it was shared by other philosophers like Zenon of Elea, Anaxagoras and Democritus: that of the sphericity of the Earth and its orbiting, together with all the other planets, around the Sun.

As to Democritus, the origin of his famous atomistic theory will very likely have to be found also in India, in the so-called Vaisheshika philosophic system of the legendary sage Kanada.

But long before the Greeks themselves emerged to history, it seems all this, or little less, was known in ancient Egypt. A manuscript by one Abdul Hassan Ma’sudi, preserved in the Oxford Bodleian Library, recounts for example that «Surid, king of Egypt before the great Flood, ordered the building of the pyramids and had his priests deposit the knowledge of sciences in them»; and that «he had the data pertaining to the spheres and their positions put into the biggest one, in order to perpetuate them».

In this connection, it is a proven fact that the pyramid of Kheops contained both the knowledge of the value of pi – as given by the sum of its four sides divided into the double of its height – and the golden ratio, 1.618 – obtained by dividing the surface of its base into the lateral surface and the surface of this one into the total surface – plus many other data like the mean distance from the Sun, etcetera.

In addition, eclipses were predicted, and an agricultural calendar was developed that was so advanced, that it announced the exact time of the Nile inundations. All this made Egypt, like India, the ultimate goal of all seekers for knowledge. According to Diogenes Laertius, it was here that the Greek philosophers Thales and Democritus learned geometry and astronomy, and for his part Porphyry, in his Life of Pythagoras, insists on an Egyptian origin of Thales’ ideas and, therefore, of those of Pythagoras. As to the latter, it seems his famous theorem was of common use in Egypt as early as 2500 BC.

However, it surely was in Babylon, according to recent studies, where the said theorem was known not only in its practical use but also in its theoretical formulation as early as 2000 BC, and there even is a possibility that this knowledge dates back from the old Sumerians, which in fact would place it in prehistoric times. Be it as it may, it is said that the old Babylonians invented the circle divided into 360 degrees, although this “invention” seems to have been made in many places and at different times. What is sure is, like the Egyptians, the Babylonians established an accurate agricultural calendar that not only predicted floods but also eclipses, all of which made Babylon, like Egypt and India, a great culture-radiating center.

As to China, a single example will suffice to show the extent of the advance it reached from old in the area of astronomy: An archaic manuscript describes, in the peculiar Chinese poetic stile, a “inharmonic” meeting of the Sun and Moon in Fang, a portion of the ski of China which would correspond to four stars in the Scorpio constellation. Well, calculations made by contemporary astronomers have revealed that this eclipse did occur on the 22nd October of 2137 BC – more than 4000 years ago! (To be continued.)

(First published on Qassia 11 Jul 2008)

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