Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Universe-in-a-Box

The pyramids were not observatories, although it is tempting to think of them as such. The astronomical alignments they demonstrate were symbolic or magical rather than practical. Indeed, except for their very accurate calendar, the Egyptians seem to have made little of what we would call scientific use of their many astronomical observations. The ancient Egyptians drew images of constellations (an Egyptian star map was discovered by one of Napoleon’s generals in 1798 when the French army campaigned in Egypt) and made accurate measurements of stellar positions. However, they also reached the fantastic conclusion that the universe was a rectangular box, running north and south, its ceiling flat, supported by four pillars at the cardinal points—due north, south, east, and west. Joining the pillars together was a mountain chain, along which the celestial river Ur-nes ran, carrying boats bearing the Sun, the Moon, and other heavenly deities. In fact, many early cultures developed an accurate astronomical calendar side by side with a fanciful mythology.

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