World History


Then Again




Secondary Source Essay




In his article entitled "Ancient Astronomy and the Roots of Science," Evan Hadingham writes about many of the scientific advances made by early civilizations. Theses advancements include the development of the Babylonian number system based on sixty which we use for our clocks, the ancient Egyptian invention of a twenty-fiour-hour day and a 365-day year, and the division of the calendar into the weeks and months we use, which is from the calendar the Babylonians, Egyptians, Romans, and Hebrews used. These achievements are due to the ancient sky watchers of the early civilizations. The sky watchers kept careful data which they used to predict the movements of the planets, stars, sun, moon, and other obiects they observed in the sky. Hadingham argues that, while many civilizations watched the sky, only the Greeks were interested in the reason why the planets moved through the sky. He exp]ains that this curiosity was limited to the Greeks because they were the only civilization of that time which used a form of democracy for govemment. The other civilizations were not interested because "any urge to inquire and explain was paralyzed" (pg 18) by the strict authorities that governed their societies.

According to Hadingham, Babylon was one of the civilizations that did not seek an explanation for the movement of the planets. The evidence he presents includes the clay tablets used by the Babylonians around 389 to 374 BC to calculate the timing of eclipses and the movements of the moon and other planets. The use of mathematics in these calcuiations was limited to finding patterns in the data instead of explaining why the events occurred. These tablets do not contain theories or explanations for the celestial events which they observed. Hadingham ties the findings of the clay tablets to the rule of Hammurabi, King Ammisaduqa, and King Nabonassar. From this evidences Hadingham draws the conclusion that it was not inquiring ideas which led to their achievements; it was logical computations (pg. 13).

Hadingham also provides evidence that China was another civilization whose accomplishments in astronomy were not driven by inquiring ideas. Instead, these accomplishments were sponsored by the state Hadingham incluces a picture of the first Chinese astronomers. These astronomers were the brothers Hsi and Hso. The drawing shows them receiving commission from the Emperor Yao to organize the calendar and observe the heavens. In addition, the Chinese did not acquire a system of geometry during the time of these ancient sky watchers. With this evidence, Hadingham concludes that Chinese "speculations were stifled under the dead weight of the bureaucracy and mythology"(pg. 18).

The Mayans also did not acquire a system of geometry from their sky watchers. Hadingham goes on to present the evidence left behind by the priests of that time. This evidence includes documents and inscriptions on tahlets, temple walls, free standing pillars, and even four Mayan books written on bark. These are all almanacs and manuals of the Mayan sky watchers which are very similar to the Babylonian clay tablets. Like the Babylonians, the Mayan sky watchers made predictions but did not seek to explain the reasons for these celestial movements. With this information, Hadingham states that their ability as astronomers was used for religious and political values instead of seeking rationalizations for the movements of the planets

Hadingham presents the Egyptians as another civilization that did not seek to account for the celestial happenings. The evidence is found in the design of the Grreat Pyramid. There are two shafts in the pyramid, including one which points to a star in Orion's Belt. The Egyptians identified Orion with the underworld god of vegetation and rebirth, Osiris. The temple contains inscriptions which tell of pharaoh's ascension to join Osiris in the sky where he would command eternal revolutions of the stars. Further evidence includes the images on coffin lids and temple walls which show that the skv is connected with the cycle of birth and death according to the Egvptian people of that time. Hadingham states that "their sky lore served to reflect and reinforce their most essential attitudes" (pg. 24), and they did not seek an explanation for the celestial happenings.

The Greeks were the only civilization that Hadingham claims sought after this kind of an explanation. Hadingham claims that the primary reason for this kind of inquiry comes trom the Greek democracy, which allowed this kind of speculation. Politicians who were accustomed to these kinds of debates, and skeptical philosophers were allowed to search for rationalizations in many different situations. Further evidence includes the form of geometry the Greeks developed which allowed them to consider three dimensional space. From this, Eudoxus proposed a universe of 27 spheres spinning around earth. Hipparchus also formed the first testable astronomical theory. These major accomplishments of the Greeks led Hadingham to the conclusion that the Greeks did, indeed, inquire about the nature of the movements of celestial objects.

I agree with what Hadingham writes and found that his argument was persuasive, but he could have made his argument even stronger by providing more evidence of how the governments affected the sky watchers and by limiting the amount of extra information he presents. Hadingham presents many primary sources as evidence that, besides the Greeks, early civilizations did not try to figure out reasons for the celestial happenings. However, his main point in supporting his argument is that the Greeks were the only civilization to inquire about these happenings because they were the only ones who used democracy as a form of government. This point was not well supported by evidence. For example, Hadingham mentions the Babylonian rulers of that time, but he does not explain the effects they had on the sky watchers. He does not even mention anything about the government of the Mayans. Evidence that the other governments stifled the curiosity of the people would have helped support Hadingham's argument. In addition, Hadingham could have made his argument clearer by focusing on the information that was directly related to his thesis. There seemed to be a lot of extra infonnation which did not support his argument. This makes it hard for the reader to distinguish exactly what he was trying to prove. It also makes it easy for the reader to get bogged down in the extra details instead of focusing on the main argument. Besides these two criticisms, I found the article to be really interesting. I am amazed at the ascomplishments that these early societies made without the advanced technology that we depend on today.

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