Saturday, January 1, 2011

Babylonian mathematics

In The Character of Physical Law (1965), the physicist Feynman presents an informal dichotomy between the “Greek” and the “Babylonian” approach to science.  The Greek: axiomatic, systematic.  The Babylonian: ad-hoc bricolage.  I satirized the latter in the parable of the humble woodchuck (“Constructivist Angelology”).

In this morning’s reading, I happened upon this:

Shlomo Sternberg, Celestial Mechanics (1969), p. 1:

In most popular accounts, the contributions of the Babylonians …  are consistently underestimated.  The Babylonians, in addition to having accumulated impressive observational data, based their tables and predictions on a form of Fourier analysis (using what are now known as “spline functions” instead of trigonometrical series).

!!! -- I stand corrected.

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