Friday, 2 September 2016

How We Know Science Works

Babylonian cuneiform containing the trapezoid formula
Credit: M. Ossendrjver/British Museum
Ancient Babylonian astronomers calculated Jupiter’s position from the area under a time-velocity graph | Science

The great thing about science is that it works.

It works because it is firmly rooted in reality and so is reproducible and repeatable. This means that no matter who is doing it or when, or what the cultural setting is, done properly, the result should be the same.

The same can be said of mathematics, of course. It doesn't matter how many times you do the maths, who does it or when, the answer will be the same providing the maths is done correctly.

You can't say the same for religion. Religion is not reproducible or repeatable and it depends exactly on who is doing it, when and in what cultural context. This is because religion is not founded in reality and has no testable evidence. No two newly discovered cultures, discovered by Europeans as they spread around the world in the Middle Ages were found to have the same religion. No disconnected cultures ever had the same god(s), the same forms of worship, the same beliefs in what those gods could or couldn't do or what pleased them and what displeased them.

And yet they all believed them and could give 'reasons' for those beliefs.

This means that, even when a body of science or mathematics is lost altogether for any reason, we will eventually rediscover it and it will give the same answers. This fact was made particularly powerfully last January when Babylonian cuneiform expert, Mathieu Ossendrijver, of Humboldt University in Berlin, discovered that ancient Babylonians had not only devised a mathematical technique previously thought to have been developed by 14th century scholars at Merton College, Oxford, UK, but that they had used it to accurately predict the position of Jupiter.

The idea of computing a body’s displacement as an area in time-velocity space is usually traced back to 14th-century Europe. I show that in four ancient Babylonian cuneiform tablets, Jupiter’s displacement along the ecliptic is computed as the area of a trapezoidal figure obtained by drawing its daily displacement against time. This interpretation is prompted by a newly discovered tablet on which the same computation is presented in an equivalent arithmetical formulation. The tablets date from 350 to 50 BCE. The trapezoid procedures offer the first evidence for the use of geometrical methods in Babylonian mathematical astronomy, which was thus far viewed as operating exclusively with arithmetical concepts.

Mathieu Ossendrijver
Ancient Babylonian astronomers calculated Jupiter’s position from the area under a time-velocity graph
29 Jan 2016: Vol. 351, Issue 6272, pp. 482-484 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad8085

Copyright © 2016, Copyright © 2016, American Association for the Advancement of Science. Reprinted with kind permission under licence #3940720463761

Marduk, patron god of Babylon
Their main god was the patron god of Babylon, Marduk, who was associated with Jupiter, so they had a particular interest in keeping an eye on what Jupiter was doing. The mathematical technique they used involved calculating the area of a trapezoid underneath a graph and was the forerunner of the calculus invented independently by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the mid-17th century.

And astronomers using these 'modern' techniques arrive at the same answers that the Ancient Babylonians arrived at, even though the world had forgotten their method and had to wait 1400 years to rediscover it.

Yet we only know of the Ancient Babylonian religions and gods because of the written records they left us. There is nothing we can rediscover in the form of real evidence we could use to reconstruct and rediscover their religion other than what they recorded. It would have been entirely impossible for 14th-century Merton College scholars to arrive at Ancient Babylonian religion from first principles, yet they arrived at their maths and used it to arrive at their knowledge of the movement of planets. And it was the same!

Science works; religion doesn't. Science deals with reality; religion deals with the unreal.

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  1. Yes, exactly! Science and mathematics in any culture will converge upon the same results because they are all studying the same underlying objective reality. Even in the case of another intelligent species on some other planet, no matter how alien their psychology or physical form or ways of recording information, if they objectively studied the universe at all they would arrive at the same physical laws and mathematical descriptions as we have, for the same reason. If aliens had anything like religion, it would be nothing like what any culture on Earth has, but even more (from our viewpoint) arbitrary and bizarre.

    1. Indeed, and I've made that point several times in posts here. We know so little of ancient religions because they are not discoverable other than from the records they left if any. What gods if any inspired the erection of Stonehenge or Silbury Hill, for example?

  2. Good posting on this, besides, religion never had any reason to use it for explaining science or nature, or anything for that matter on Earth. Religions to me are just cult tailored cultures.


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