Historical Science & Technology, Science

Babylonian Star Catalogues & YOU!

First things first: JK. This article really has nothing to do with you, other than you reading it. (Which is much appreciated!) If you’re still reading after that heartbreaking bait-and-switch, let’s take a look at some of the earliest astronomical charts in the history of man—the Babylonian star catalogues.

Maps to the Stars

The Babylonian star catalogues they won’t help you find Ray Liotta’s house, but they do contain lists of constellations, individual stars, and planets. Written in cuneiform during the Kassite rule of Babylonia (ca. 1531-1155 BCE), these catalogues collected earlier observations and newly-observed information into handy compendia.

The first of these catalogues, dated to roughly the 12th century BCE, is known as Three Stars Each. Comprising several smaller texts, Three Stars Each presents a three-part division of the sky observable to the ancient Babylonians—the northern hemisphere, the equator (extending to 17° north and south), and the southern hemisphere. The sky division was carefully calculated so that the sun spent three consecutive months in each third.

Each section was said to “belong” to a different Babylonian deity: Enlil, “Lord of the Storm,” god of breath and wind, in the north; Anu, the “Sky Father” or “King of the Gods,” at the equator; and Enki, the god of suburban Minnesota craft beer, in the south.

The catalogue’s name derives from the list of stars it contained. A total of 36 stars were listed, or three for each month on the calendar. The cuneiform glyph for “star” or “constellation” is written in modern English computerological type as mul. (The superscript is key.) The large–and easily visible to the ancient Babylonians–Pleiades star cluster is referred to as “the star of stars” in Three Stars Each, written as mul.mul.

mul.mul as seen from Earth, with visual enhancement.

mul.mul as seen from Earth (with visual enhancement)

The Mul.Apin

The second “official” Babylonian star catalogue was called the mul.apin, which loosely translates as “The Plow.” This is also the name of the first constellation to become visible each new year, which modern astronomers identify as Triangulum plus Gamma Andromedae. Again written in cuneiform, the mul.apin was a new-and-improved version of Three Stars Each, with more complete and accurate information.

Research dates the compilation of the mul.apin to approximately 1000 BCE. The earliest known copy of the star catalogue is a pair of preserved stone tablets dated to 686 BCE. The most recent historical versions of the text yet discovered are from roughly 300 BCE.

The mul.apin expands on Three Stars Each, and adds new information. It lists 66 stars and constellations, and includes detailed information on numerous indicators, such as the rising, setting, and culmination dates of those stars.

Photo credit: lrargerich via Foter.com / CC BY-NC


Get to Know the Gnomon

Surely you’re familiar with the sundial. (And don’t call me Shirley.) But did you know that the term “sundial” actually *technically* only applies to the face of the device (the flat part with the numbers)? Just as a watch is no good without its hands, so, too, is the sundial useless without its gnomon.

Anaximander & The Babylonian Gnomons (Say That 5 Times Fast)

The name “gnomon” comes from an old Greek word that translates to “one who knows or examines”—fitting, as the gnomon is the only part of a sundial that can actually tell you what time it is. (The gnomon knows!) Over time, the term came to have several different meanings, including “perpendicular,” “an L-shaped instrument used to draw right angles,” and “that which, when added to another number or shape, creates a new entity similar to that with which one started.” Fun stuff.

The gnomon was introduced into Greek culture by Anaximander, a 6th Century BCE philosopher who himself took the ideal from the Babylonians. Originally, Babylonian gnomons were simple vertical pillars or rods installed on a flat, horizontal surface. These devices, if they can be considered “devices” at all, worked on the same principle as a sundial: as the sun moves across the sky, the shadow of the gnomon would indicate the time of day. Shorter shadows appeared in summer, becoming shortest at the summer solstice; longer shadows appeared in summer, with the longest occurring on the winter solstice.


Though Anaximander did not invent the gnomon or the sundial, he was the first person to accurately determine the spring and autumnal equinoxes, using a gnomon and good old geometry.

“What Time Is It?” Time to Buy A Gnomon!

Perhaps the most impressive thing about gnomons is that old-timey people like the ancient Greeks were able to figure out how they worked at all. Sure, the Babylonians invented the gnomon and devised the art of time measurement, but the Greeks (more or less) perfected it. Even if the calendar has changed since those days, seconds, minutes, and hours have all remained the same for thousands of years. (Though it should be noted that sundials don’t provide accuracy down to the minute, let alone the second.)

The key to getting a sundial to show the correct time is orientation. In the northern hemisphere, where Greece has been located since at least the 1960s, the shadow casting edge of a gnomon must be oriented pointing north and aligned parallel to Earth’s rotational axis; i.e., the gnomon’s edge must be horizontally inclined at an angle equal to the sundial’s latitudinal location. The easiest way to do this—in ancient Greece and in modern America—is to point the sucker directly at Polaris.

Most sundials are flat and parallel to the ground, with the gnomon extending vertically from its surface. In some instances, however, a sundial can be mounted vertically (usually on the wall of a building) with the gnomon sticking out sideways, parallel to the ground. These vertical sundials are considerably more difficult to properly align, as they are on friggin’ walls and getting everything setup that way is just all around harder.

Photo credit: Tim Green aka atoach / Foter / CC BY


Boyle’s Law: Keeping Your Gas in Check

Boyle’s law is a gas law that states that, at a constant temperature, the pressure and volume of a gas have an inverse relationship. It can be stated thusly: For a fixed amount of a gas kept at a fixed temperature, pressure and volume are inversely proportional—if the pressure increases, the volume decreases (and vice versa) as long as the temperature stays the same.

Got it? Good. But where did this law come from?

And Who’s This Boyle Guy?

Robert Boyle (1627-1691) was an Irish philosopher, physicist, chemist, inventor, and theologian. Building off his study of alchemy, Boyle became the first modern chemist and a pioneer of modern experimental scientific method. Boyle’s Law is his most well-known contribution to science, and his book The Sceptical Chymist [sic] is considered one of the most important early works in the field of chemistry.

Boyle's Facebook profile pic.

Boyle’s Facebook profile pic.

Something Witty About Gas

Boyle was not the first to note the relationship between the pressure and volume of gases. Richard Towneley and Henry Power discovered this connection, but it was Boyle who confirmed the discovery via experimentation and published the findings.

Using an apparatus built by his assistant, Robert Hooke (who later went on to have his own law named after him), Boyle experimented on air. At the time, air was still considered one of the “four elements,” but Boyle considered air to be a fluid of particles at rest in between miniscule, invisible springs. He sought to understand air as an essential element of life.

Hooke’s device consisted of a J-shaped tube. Boyle’s experiments found him pouring mercury in one end, forcing the air to the other side, where it contracted under pressure. After establishing the control conditions, he discovered that a gas’s pressure is inversely proportionate to the volume it occupies.

There’s An Equation & Everything

The mathematical equation for Boyle’s Law, if you’re into that kind of thing, is fairly simple to write out. Not sure if the same can be said for understanding it. Anyway, here it is:

PV = k

P: pressure of the gas; V = volume of the gas; k = a constant

Photo credit: Stifts- och landsbiblioteket i Skara / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)


The Gentleman Scientists

Gentleman scientists are financially independent scientists who practice their craft of their own accord—that is, with no direct affiliation, financial support, or direction from public institutions, government entities, or universities. Gentleman scientists rose to prominence following the Renaissance, and though they exist to this day, government and private funding caused a significant decrease in their numbers beginning in the early- to mid-20th century.

Though they are also known as “independent scientists,” “gentleman scientists” has a much better ring to it, so we’ll stick with that. The term is in no way intended to imply that women (or “ladies,” which would be the logical accompaniment to “gentlemen”) cannot also be scientists of this ilk.

A Brief History

Self-funded scientists have been around at least as long as science has been studied by mankind. Obviously, some of the very first scientists were self-funded, as they were working in uncharted territory and essentially “inventing” science as they went along.

Truer to the definition of the term, however, are the scientists from the end of the Renaissance through the Victorian age who paid for their own research. Gentleman scientists were most prominent in England, which explains the fancy pants nomenclature* (many of the first fellows of the Royal Society of London were gentleman scientists), but they practiced throughout the world.

While some gentleman scientists were independently wealthy, and could use their personal fortunes to finance their research, many derived or supplemented their income with funds from other science-related sources (some very loosely so). Galileo sold scientific instruments of his own design, Johannes Kepler wrote and published horoscopes, and many others practiced and/or taught medicine.

Notable gentleman scientists throughout history include Robert Boyle, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Alessandro Volta, and Thomas Jefferson, though he probably still puts “Third President of the United States” first on his resume.

You can't get much more gentleman scientisty than this fellow.

You can’t get much more gentleman scientisty than this fellow. (Whoever he is.)

Pros & Cons of the Gentleman Scientist Game

Though outside funding would certainly have been obtainable by most gentleman scientists, they generally chose to go solo for the freedoms it allowed them. With no patron to determine where their research should be focused, gentleman scientists were able to follow their own interests. The gentleman scientist was free to pursue any project they wanted, including those with a high potential for failure to which others who are footing the bill may be averse.

Going the gentleman scientist route most often meant that far less money was available for research and experimentation, but it also eliminated the inconveniences associated with working for a funds-supplying university: teaching obligations, administrative mumbo jumbo, grant request writing, etc.

Additionally, in many cases, any inventions developed under the patronage of a university or government body would become the intellectual property of said patron. A gentleman scientist inventor’s inventions were entirely his or her own.

Science often requires a good deal of complicated, and usually prohibitively expensive, equipment. These devices could be difficult for the gentleman scientist to obtain outside of a university or government research lab setting. This, of course, made research and experimentation difficult. Some gentleman scientists circumvented this obstacle by working with funded colleagues with access to the necessary equipment, or through equipment-only grants.

* Highlighted here by the use of the equally fancy pants word “nomenclature.” Vocabulary FTW!

Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images / Foter / No known copyright restrictions

Science, Technology

Biosphere 2: Mission 1 (NOT Starring Pauly Shore)

Biosphere 2 is a 3.14-acre Earth systems science research facility in the Arizona desert, near Oracle. It was constructed between 1987 and 1991, and, at the time of its completion, contained numerous representative biomes: a rainforest, mangrove wetlands, an ocean with coral reef, a fog desert, a savannah grassland, an agricultural system, and a human habitat. The fully-enclosed, airtight system—still the largest of its kind—was famously used for two “closed missions” designed to study the interaction between humans, farming, technology, and nature, as well as to test the efficacy of the structure for space colonization.

Mission 1’s Crew

Biosphere 2’s first closed mission lasted exactly two years, from 26 September 1991 to 26 September 1993. It was manned by an eight-person crew of researchers, including Director of Research Abigail Alling, Linda Leigh, Taber MacCallum, Mark Nelson, Jane Poynter, Sally Silverstone, Mark Van Thillo, and medical doctor Roy Walford.

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

Scientific Diet

Throughout Mission 1, the crew ate a low-calorie, nutrient-rich diet Wolford had developed through prior research into extending the human lifespan through diet. The agricultural system within Biosphere 2 produced over 80 percent of the team’s total diet, including bananas, beans, beets, lablab, papayas, peanuts, rice, sweet potatoes, and wheat.

In their first year, they lost an average of 16 percent of their pre-entry bodyweight. This weight loss stabilized and the crew gained much of their weight back during the second year as caloric intake increased with larger crop volumes. Regular medical tests showed that the crew remained in excellent health throughout the mission, and lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and improved immune systems were noted across the board. Additionally, the crew’s metabolisms became more efficient at extracting nutrients from their food as they adapted to their unique diet.

Fauna of Mission 1

A number of animals were included in the mission, including goats, chickens, pigs, and fish. These creatures were contained in the special agricultural area to study the effects of the artificial environment on non-human animals. Numerous pollinating insects were also included to facilitate the continued growth of the plant life within Biosphere 2.

So-called “species-packing” was implemented to ensure that food webs and ecological functions could continue if some species did not survive. This proved prescient, as the fish were ultimately overstocked, causing many to die and clog the ocean area’s filtration systems. Native insects, such as ants and cockaroaches, inadvertently sealed inside the facility, soon took over, killing many of the other insects. The invasive ants and cockroaches did perform much of the pollination needed to maintain plant life, however.

Flora & Biomes of Mission 1

As with the animals within Biosphere 2, several of its various biomes reacted differently than researchers had anticipated. Successes and failures arose in nearly equal measure.

The fog desert area turned into chaparral due to higher than expected levels of condensation. Plants in the rainforest and savannah areas suffered from etiolation and were weaker than expected, as the lack of natural wind caused a lack of stress wood growth.

Morning glories overgrew the rainforest and blocked the growth of other plants. The savannah itself was seasonally active, as expected, but the crew had to cut and store biomass to help regulate carbon dioxide within the facility.

Corals reproduced regularly in the ocean area, but the crew had to hand-harvest algae from the corals and manipulate the water’s pH levels to keep it from becoming too acidic.

Biosphere 2 Today

The Biosphere 2 facility has been owned by the University of Arizona since 2011. It is now used for a wide range of research projects.

Photo credit: K e v i n / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)