Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Plain Old Astronomy

One of the great attractions of astronomy is that it so new and yet so old. Astronomy asks many questions that push the envelope of human knowledge. What exactly are black holes? How did the universe begin and how will it end? How old is the universe? At the same time, it is the most ancient of sciences. The Babylonians, who lived in southeastern Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (present-day southern Iraq from Baghdad to the Persian Gulf), are the first people we know of who actively studied the stars and planets. As early as 3000 B.C.E., they seem to have identified constellations and, sometime later, developed a calendar tied to the recurrence of certain astronomical events (they didn’t have NCAA basketball tournaments back then to let them know it was springtime).
Astronomy was only one of the Babylonian areas of knowledge basic to civilization. From ancient Babylonia came the first system of writing, cuneiform; the earliest known body of law, the Code of Hammurabi; the potter’s wheel; the sailboat; the seed plow; and even the form of government known as the city-state. And whenever people sought to bring order and understanding to their world, astronomy was part of the effort.
If you are reading this blog, it’s a safe bet that you’re interested in astronomy. You’re not alone today, and you haven’t been alone for at least 5,000 years and probably a lot longer.

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