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On Historical Perspective

Famed Babylonian tablet Plimpton 322*

[Christine Proust and Columbia University]

I read a marvelous passage earlier this week that I would like to share. It’s an old one, from a book published in 1952, but it’s new to me. The book: The Exact Sciences in Antiquity by Otto Neugebauer. Neugebauer is a giant of twentieth-century history, the expert on ancient Babylonian mathematics and astronomy. An Austrian, he studied engineering, mathematics, and physics in Graz, then Munich, and then Göttingen, where he began to work on the history of ancient mathematics. He left Germany for Copenhagen in 1934, then moved on to the US, where he spent the remainder of his career at Brown and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Neugebauer died in 1990. I was aware of his name and vaguely of his importance to the history of mathematics when we spent the year at the Institute in 1987-1988, but unfortunately I didn’t think to meet him or learn more about his work. Talk about missed opportunities. But now, 23 years later, I’ve been looking at some of his work.

In the 1930’s and 1940’s, in a series of books, he translated and interpreted the mathematics on the Babylonian cuneiform tablets that can be found in many of the world’s great museums and that date to the time period of 1900 BCE-1600 BCE. The book on exact sciences in antiquity from which I am about to quote is more of an overview that grew out of lectures he gave at Cornell in 1949. In the Preface, he explains that the nature of the presentation led him to omit the qualifications he might ordinarily have offered in a more scholarly work, adding that he has “enjoyed the possibility of being compelled for once to abandon all learned apparatus and to pretend to know when actually I am guessing.” The paragraph concludes with the passage below, which I leave for your enjoyment without further comment.

This does not imply that I have ignored facts. Indeed I have consistently tried to keep as close as possible to the source material. Only in its selection, in its arrangement, and in its coherent interpretation have I permitted myself much greater freedom than is usual in technical publications. And in order to counteract somewhat the impression of security which easily emerges from general discussions I have often inserted methodological remarks to remind the reader of the exceedingly slim basis on which, of necessity, is built any discussion of historical developments from which we are separated by many centuries. The common belief that we gain “historical perspective” with increasing distance seems to me utterly to misrepresent the actual situation. What we gain is merely confidence in generalizations which we would never dare make if we had access to the real wealth of contemporary evidence.

*The photo at the top is taken from a NYT article by Nicholas Wade last fall on the occasion of an exhibition of cuneiform tablets at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Unfortunately, the exhibition closed last December, or else I would be making plans to see it during our upcoming trip to New York. Wade explained that the “considerable mathematical knowledge of the Babylonians was uncovered by the Austrian mathematician Otto E. Neugebauer, who died in 1990. Scholars since then have turned to the task of understanding how the knowledge was used. The items in the exhibition are drawn from the archaeological collections of Columbia, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania.” Be sure to look at the accompanying slide show, which includes more tablets, a photo of Otto Neugebauer, and his hand drawing of both sides of a tablet.

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Categories: History, Math, Writing
  1. August 24, 2011 at 10:14 PM

    Very interesting. I’m always amazed by the knowledge of early civilizations. If it weren’t for scholars like Neugebauer we’d all still believe they were primitive groups. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing.

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