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Chasing Shadows

Mathematics, Astronomy, and the Early History of Eclipse Reckoning

Clemency Montelle

Publication Year: 2011

Lunar and solar eclipses have always fascinated human beings. Digging deep into history, Clemency Montelle examines the ways in which theoretical understanding of eclipses originated and how ancient and medieval cultures shared, developed, and preserved their knowledge of these awe-inspiring events. Eclipses were the celestial phenomena most challenging to understand in the ancient world. Montelle draws on original research—much of it derived from reading primary source material written in Akkadian and Sanskrit, as well as ancient Greek, Latin, and Arabic—to explore how observers in Babylon, the Islamic Near East, Greece, and India developed new astronomical and mathematical techniques to predict and describe the features of eclipses. She identifies the profound scientific discoveries of these four cultures and discusses how the societies exchanged information about eclipses. In constructing this history, Montelle establishes a clear pattern of the transmission of scientific ideas from one culture to another in the ancient and medieval world. Chasing Shadows is an invitingly written and highly informative exploration of the early history of astronomy.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Mathematics

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii-ix

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pp. xi-xii

“In order to understand the text,” Professor David Pingree—chair and the only permanent faculty member of the Department of the History of Mathematics at Brown University—used to insist with his eyes sparkling, “you have to know what it says before you read it.” I don’t know if I could ever reproduce the incredulous look that came overmethe first time he toldmethis, but gradually I began to appreciate this sentiment to be utterly true when it came to working with...

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CHAPTER ONE: Heavenly Hide and Seek: An Introduction to Eclipse Reckoning in Early Times

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pp. 1-21

“Was there an eclipse?” demanded the peripatetic Aristotle. “What is an eclipse? Why is there an eclipse, or rather, why is the moon eclipsed?”1 From earliest times, lunar and solar eclipses have provided persistent and conspicuous inspiration for thinkers to study celestial phenomena. But Aristotle’s discussion about eclipses in this context proved profoundly significant in ways that extended far beyond the purview of astronomy. Besides the direct effect...

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CHAPTER TWO: The Rudiments of Alignment: Basic Eclipse Theory

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pp. 22-47

Perhaps the single most prominent feature of the night sky is the disk of the moon. With its waxing and waning at such short recurring intervals, even the most casual observer cannot but notice and appreciate its periodicities. The circuit of the moon can be envisioned as (approximately) a great circle on the celestial sphere, a huge spherical surface enclosing the earth onto which all heavenly bodies are projected. The earth is centrally placed in this sphere...

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CHAPTER THREE: An Accountancy of Appearances: Mesopotamian Eclipse Reckoning

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pp. 48-98

The close of the fourth millennium BCE saw communities of agrarian peoples who inhabited the region between the rivers of the Euphrates and the Tigris, up to then largely autonomous, reach a point of sufficient density, interdependency, and complexity to be considered an emergent civilization. As well as increasingly tight social and political organization, extensive trade and circulation of commodities, deliberate large-scale agriculture and labor, ...

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CHAPTER FOUR: Beyond the Appearances: Greek Eclipse Reckoning

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pp. 99-155

In the fifth century BCE, methods to predict eclipses as developed by Mesopotamians were far more advanced than those of their Greek contemporaries. There is no evidence to suggest that the early Greek astronomers were experimenting with numerical patterns in any way comparable to the Mesopotamians at this time. However, as was even recognized in their own times, as in Theon of Smyrna’s account centuries later, ancient Greek thinkers were engaged...

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CHAPTER FIVE: Recipient and Remodeler: Indian Eclipse Reckoning

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pp. 156-284

Astronomy in premodern India,2 just like almost every member in the discipline of jyotihsastra3 or the “exact sciences,” inherited a wealth of material from other cultures. For this reason, India has been characterized as the “recipient and remodeler of foreign elements.”4 Indian astronomy was influenced first by Mesopotamia, next by Greece, in turn by Islam, and then and most recently by modern ideas. However, sources were not adopted wholesale; each element...

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CHAPTER SIX: A Science of Configuration: Arabic Eclipse Reckoning

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pp. 285-324

When Caliph Abu Ja‘far al-Mansur founded Baghdad in 762 CE, he did so with the intention of establishing the heart of the Islamic nation; the nascent dynasty of ‘Abbasid rulers had far-reaching ambitions for this state. Indeed, not only did Baghdad become the established and enduring center for the nation of Islam, but it formed the cultural, political, and intellectual locus for what was at its peak to be a vast empire stretching as far as India, Spain, and Central...

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CHAPTER SEVEN: Concluding Remarks

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pp. 325-334

When Aristotle defined an eclipse as an alignment, his description represented a pivotal moment within the unfolding of a vast cultural transition. To characterize an eclipse as an alignment is simultaneously bold and subtle. From a modern perspective, it is so very natural, but for the ancients to suppose a geometry behind the changing images on the ceiling of the heavens was a major shift in perspective. Aristotle recognized that he could register the...


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pp. 335


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pp. 336-341


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pp. 342-352


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pp. 353-376


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pp. 377-382


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pp. 383-391


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pp. 393-408

E-ISBN-13: 9780801899102
E-ISBN-10: 0801899109
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801896910
Print-ISBN-10: 0801896916

Page Count: 424
Illustrations: 6 halftones, 51 line drawings
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Mathematics