The Greek astronomer Hipparchus is often called the “father of astronomy”. He is credited with discovering the motion of the Earth (how it oscillates on its axis), and calculating the motion of the Sun and Moon, among other accomplishments. Hipparchus is also believed to have been compiling a star catalog—perhaps the earliest known attempt to map the night sky to date—sometime between 162 and 127 B.C., based on references in historical texts.
Scientists have been searching for this catalog for centuries. Now, thanks to a technique called multispectral imaging, they’ve found what appears to be The first known Greek remains From the catalog of the Stars of Hipparchus. It was hidden under Christian texts on medieval vellum, according to a new research paper published in the Journal of the History of Astronomy.
Multispectral imaging is a method that takes visible blue, green, and red images and combines them with an infrared image and an X-ray image of an object. This can reveal subtle hints of pigment, as well as drawings or writings hidden under different layers of paint or ink. For example, researchers have previously used this technique to reveal hidden text on four parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls that were previously believed to be empty. And last year, Swiss scientists used multispectral photography to reconstruct photographic plates created by French physicist Gabriel Lippmann, who pioneered color photography and was awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in Physics for his efforts. The method has been corrected for color distortions that occurred as a result of the Lippmann technique.
The present paper arose from research in Codex Climaci Rescriptus, Peter grew up in St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. It consists of 11 individual manuscripts, with Aramaic texts of the Old and New Testaments and a Greek text of the New Testament, among other contents. These texts have been dated to the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, respectively. The manuscript was kept at Westminster College in Cambridge until 2010, when Steve Green, president of the Hobby Lobby, bought it from Sotheby’s. It is now part of the green collection on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., although some papers are stored elsewhere.
It was a common practice at the time to scrape clean old manuscripts for reuse, and this was done with the manuscript. At first, scholars assumed that ancient writing was more Christian texts. But when Peter Williams, a biblical scholar at the University of Cambridge, asked his summer students to study the pages as a private project in 2012, one identified a Greek passage for the astronomer Eratosthenes.
This involved further investigation, so Williams turned to scientists at the Electronic Library of Early Manuscripts in California and the University of Rochester in New York to perform multispectral imaging of the manuscript pages in 2017. The technique revealed nine complete papers related to astronomy, dating between the fifth and sixth centuries. – not only Eratosthenes’ passage about the myths of the origin of stars, but also a famous poem (phenomenaaround the 3rd century BC) describing the constellations.
Williams spent much of his time during the pandemic lockdown studying the resulting images, and one day he noticed what appeared to be the coordinates of the Corona Borealis constellation. He immediately contacted science historian Victor Jessemberg of the CNRS in Paris about his discovery. “I was really excited from the start,” Jessemberg told Nature. “It immediately turns out that we have the coordinates of the stars.”
Gissemberg and his colleague Emmanuel Zing of the Sorbonne translated the one-page passage as follows:
Corona Borealis, lying in the Northern Hemisphere, extends along 9 degrees ¼ of the first degree of Scorpio to 10 degrees ¼ of the same zodiac sign (that is, in Scorpio). In its breadth extends 6° from 49° from the North Pole to 55°.
Within it, the star (β CrB) leads to the west next to the bright star (α CrB) (that is, it is the first to rise), at Scorpius 0.5 °. The fourth star (ι CrB) to the east of the bright star (α CrB) is the last (i.e. rising) [. . .]10 49° from the North Pole. The southernmost (δCrB) is the third bright count (αCrB) eastward, which is 55° ¾ from the North Pole.
But can this passage be attributed to Hipparchus? While the authors are cautious about the final attribution, the authors cite several evidence that appears to link the text to the Greek astronomer. For example, some data are recorded in an unusual way consistent with the only other remaining work of Hipparchus. The authors were able to use astronomical charts to determine that the observations recorded in the text may have been made around 129 BC, when Hipparchus was working on his catalog.
So far, only Corona Borealis coordinates have been recovered, but the researchers think it’s highly likely that Hipparchus mapped the entire night sky at some point, including all the visible stars — just as Ptolemy later did. Almagest Research article. Many scholars believe that Hipparchus’ catalog was one of the sources that Ptolemy used when compiling his treatise.
In fact, Williams and others. He found that Hipparchus’ calculations of the coordinates were in fact much more accurate than Ptolemy’s—correct to within one degree. This was an amazing feat, given that the telescope had not yet been invented. They speculate that Hipparchus may have used a vision tube called a dioptra or arm ball to do his calculations. They hope other parts of the catalog of Lost Stars can be found lurking in the monastery’s library as photographic techniques continue to improve.
DOI: Journal for the History of Astronomy, 2022. 10.1038/d41586-022-03296-1 (about DOIs).
List image by Museum of the Bible, 2021 / CC BY-SA 4.0
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