Researchers announced yesterday they’ve found the world’s oldest known map of the stars. Dating from the 2nd century BC , the map is attributed to the Greek astronomer and mathematician, Hipparcus. Amazingly, it was found hidden behind overlaid ink within later medieval texts found in Egypt.
Papyrus and other writing surfaces were valuable and often “recycled” in ancient times, with scribes writing over old text. Today’s advanced imaging techniques can see what the human eye cannot – and what they found was astonishing.
Well over 2000 years ago, Hipparcus noted the coordinates of the constellation Corona Borealis, along with a greater map of the heavens. The map was described by his contemporaries but was thought to have been lost to the ages.
His observations led him to believe that the Earth was the center of the universe. He wrong on that count, but his research and mathematics were principled and methodical. It’d be another 1.5 millennia before European astronomer Copernicus proved heliocentricity – and he was standing on the shoulders of giants.
Hipparcus also discovered and described the precession of the equinoxes (how stars move along the ecliptic due to the earth’s wobble). Ironically, precession is a key concept in astrology – a divinatory practice he disdained.
He measured our solar year and studied eclipses, arriving at startlingly correct conclusions. As far back as 127 BC, he accurately measured the distance between the earth and the moon and was the founder of trigonometry.
Nothing New Under the Sun
Was he the first to map the stars? Of course not – but these once-lost documents, hidden on recycled paper behind medieval manuscripts, show us the intelligence, dedication, and wonder of our ancient searchers of truth. We may also wonder what those medieval scribes may have learned as they were writing over the words and calculations of one of the most accomplished scientists of all time.
Written by: maia