Babylon Revisited

Back in Babylon, by the sixth century B.C.E., astronomers were tabulating in advance the intervals between moonrise and moonset and between sunrise and sunset, as well as the daily shift of the sun with respect to the background stars. They also predicted eclipses and made elaborate attempts to explain planetary movement.

The Venus Tablet

Some time between 1792 and 1750 b.c.e., during the reign of Hammurabi, the Babylonian king who gave the world its first code of laws, the so-called Venus Tablet was inscribed, devoted to interpreting the behavior of that planet. Babylonian astronomers believed that the movements and positions of planets with respect to the constellations could influence the fate of kings and nations. This interest in the positions of planets as a portent of the future was one early motivation for careful study of the heavens.

It is easy to imagine why, of all the planets, Venus captured the attention of the Babylonians. If you see a bright, steadily shining object in the west at or before sunset, or in the eastern sky at or before sunrise, it is almost certainly Venus—the brightest celestial object after the Sun and the Moon. Like the Moon, Venus has distinct phases, seen here.

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Close Encounter

Using binoculars or a telescope, you may be able to see Venus in its phases, from thin crescent to full. During much of the year, the planet is bright enough to see even in daylight, always quite near the sun. Venus is closer to the sun than we are, and that fact keeps it close to the sun in the sky (never more than 47 degrees, or about a quarter of the sky from horizon to horizon). The best times to observe Venus are at twilight, just before the sky becomes dark, or just before dawn. The planet will be full when it is on the far side of the sun from us and crescent when it is on the same side of the sun as we are. With a telescope on a dark night, you may be able to observe the "ashen light" phenomenon. When the planet is at quarter phase or less, a faint glow makes the unilluminated face of Venus visible.

Draftsmen of the Constellations?

Babylonian astronomers systematically used a set of 30 stars as reference points to record the celestial position of various phenomena. Then, in 625 b.c.e., the neighboring Chaldeans invaded and captured Babylon. Although they ransacked the

Babylonian capital, the Chaldeans did not ignore the astronomy of their conquered foes. Indeed, they seem to have gone well beyond merely identifying 30 reference stars and actually recorded some of the first constellation patterns.

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