Lecture at RMRL

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Indus Research Centre

Lecture on


Prof. Lis Brack-Bernsen 
University of Regensburg

Date: 19th February 2011
Time: 5.00 p.m.

Roja Muthiah Research Library
3rd Cross Road, Central Polytechnic Campus
Taramani, Chennai 600 113

Telephone: 2254 2551 / 2254 2552


Old Babylonian mathematics has a unique place in the interests and affections of mathematicians as the world's first 'pure' mathematics. This special status rests on the abstraction and sophistication of the sexagesimal place value system, a highly accurate approximation for the square root of 2, among others. However, mathematics barely features in the many textbooks, handbooks, and encyclopedias of ancient Mesopotamia, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of cuneiform tablets are primarily records of quantitative data. This anomaly has begun to change with the efforts of scholars such as Otto E. Neugebauer, Jens Hoyrup and Hermann Hunger. Through the efforts of these scholars, the achievements of Babylonians in the fields of mathematics and astronomy are now being understood and appreciated.

After a brief introduction to the Babylonian number notation and astronomy, the speaker will focus on how she, along with Assyriologist Hermann Hunger succeeded in understanding and translating some key Babylonian astronomical texts, including TU11 and BM42282+. TU11 is, among others, concerned with predictions of eclipses, the so-called Lunar Six time intervals, and of the month’s length.

Some of the key questions behind the understanding, reconstruction and translation of procedure texts concerned with astronomical predicting rules, are as follows:

- How did the ancient astronomers reason?

- Which methods and concepts did they use?

- Which observables ("O") were utilized for the prediction of a phenomenon ("P")?

- Systematic analysis of computer-simulated Babylonian observations of O in combination with the phenomena P.

About the Speaker:

A mathematician by training, with physics and astronomy as subsidiary subjects, Prof. Lis Brack-Bernsen was trained in history of ancient astronomy and mathematics by Olaf Schmidt during her studies at the University of Copenhagen. She switched to the history of Mayan Astronomy for her PhD studies at the University of Basel before becoming a full-time research scholar of Babylonian Astronomy. She joined the History of Science unit of the University of Regensburg in 1999 to focus on understanding and reconstructing many empirical prediction rules written in Babylonian procedure texts. In 2006, she became a Professor at the University of Regensburg where she teaches history of science.

Among her significant contributions to the Babylonian Astronomy are the recognition of importance of the time intervals, observed by the Babylonians, between rising and setting of sun and full moon, and the how the data, which were gathered on the "Goal-Year" clay tablets, could be used to predict the characteristic time intervals between rising and setting of sun and full moon. Analyses of early astronomical texts led to recognition of theoretical concepts which, combined with computer simulated data, enabled her to reconstruct many Babylonian astronomical prediction methods.

Prof. Lis Brack-Bernsen is a member of the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. She is also a member of the editorial board of Centaurus (Copenhagen).

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