Three questions to Alexander Jones

This is the fourth interview in the series Three questions, in which scholars,  invited to participate in the SAW events, answer three questions about their research.

It is my honour to introduce Alexander Jones, who will give a talk Mathematics and Metrology in a Fourth-Century Greek Papyrus Codex at the conference Cultures of Computation and Quantification in late March.

Alexander Jones is Professor of the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University. He studied Classics at the University of British Columbia and the history of the early mathematical sciences in the Department of the History of Mathematics at Brown University. Before coming to NYU, he was for sixteen years on the faculty of the Department of Classics and the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto. His work centers on the history and transmission of the mathematical sciences, especially astronomy. He is the author of several editions of Greek scientific texts, among them Pappus of Alexandria’s commentary on the corpus of Hellenistic geometrical treatises known as the “Treasury of Analysis”; an anonymous Byzantine astronomical handbook based on Islamic sources; and a collection of about two hundred fragmentary astronomical texts, tables, and horoscopes from the papyri excavated a century ago by Grenfell and Hunt at Oxyrhynchus. His current research interests include the contacts between Babylonian and Greco-Roman astronomy and astrology, the Antikythera Mechanism and other artifacts of Hellenistic astronomy, and the scientific work of Claudius Ptolemy.

Natalie Cernecka: How did you become interested in history of ancient mathematics and astronomy?
Alexander Jones: During my undergraduate study of Classics at the University of British Columbia, I chanced upon Neugebauer’s Exact Sciences in Antiquity on the shelves of the Mathematics Library. It revealed to me the existence of a field where I might apply a love of mathematics and puzzle-solving to ancient texts, with much more direct engagement with the manuscript sources than most classicists ever have. I was fortunate to be able to study the history of the ancient mathematical sciences in Brown University’s History of Mathematics Department when it was still at its full strength, with Gerald Toomer and David Pingree teaching and Neugebauer and Abe Sachs still strong presences though officially retired. As I came to know the material better, ancient astronomy increasingly attracted me because the sources are so varied and conducive to studying the transformations that take place in connection with transfer of methods. I am deeply interested in the phenomena of transmission not just between geographically distinct cultures but also between different intellectual communities within a culture.

Christine Proust: What types of Greek mathematical and astronomical documents did come down to us?

AJ: The most familiar representatives of Greek mathematical and astronomical documents are the treatises by well known authors such as Euclid, Archimedes, and Apollonius for mathematics and Ptolemy for astronomy, which were preserved through the tradition of manuscript copying and editing from antiquity to the age of modern printing. This tradition was highly selective, favoring famous authors and self-sufficient, didactically convenient presentations of material. Papyrus documents from Hellenistic and (especially) Roman Egypt, written in Greek or Demotic Egyptian, are rich in kinds of text that seldom made their way into the medieval manuscript tradition, for example mathematical problem texts in which the goal was computation, not demonstration, and the astronomical tables, instruction manuals, and horoscopes used by astrologers. A handful of inscriptions on stone reveal aspects of the public face of astronomy in the Hellenistic period. And Greco-Roman astronomy has left a material culture that is more abundant than most people realize, most obviously in the form of sundials.

Karine Chemla: What do we know about circulation of knowledge between astral sciences in cuneiform writing and in Greek documents?

AJ: We know best what kinds of knowledge were transmitted, as well as some of the changes that either accompanied or followed upon the transmission. The places, people, and processes involved in the knowledge transfer are much more elusive. We can say, for example, that a large fraction of the computational algorithms that were used by scribal astronomers in Babylon and Uruk to predict positions and phenomena of the Sun, Moon, and planets during the last three centuries B.C. show up in Greek papyri written in Egypt during the first four centuries A.D. That they were used, at least in part, for astrology is probable for the Babylonian context and certain for the Greco-Egyptian one, and there exist many shared technical elements also in late Babylonian and Greek astrology. So it’s a reasonable inference that the astronomical methods were transported from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean civilizations by astrologers, in a process that may have involved intermediaries between the temple-based scholars in the Babylonian cities and the horoscope-casters of Egypt, some of whom were also temple-based but clearly not all. But we seldom catch a glimpse of these carriers of knowledge in the contemporary sources. Fortunately our supply of archeologically recovered evidence is continually growing. Only a few years ago, for example, an intriguing second century B.C. inscription was discovered at Larissa in Greece that refers to the residence there of a man who was born in Hierapolis in Syria but who is described as a Chaldean (i.e. Babylonian) astronomer-astrologer.

NC: Many thanks!


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