In Popular Culture: Mathieu Ossendrijver

In this issue we are introducing some new themes to the newsletter. Besides the already existing themes ‘In the Spotlight’ and ‘In the Field’, Mar Shiprim will now also include a recurring theme entitled ‘In Popular Culture’, about the various ways in which assyriological and archeological scholarship has been communicated to a larger audience.

We begin this new recurring theme with an an interview with Mathieu Ossendrijver, whose article in Science in January 2016 led to a huge wave of popular interest.

But how does one communicate the technicalities of Late Babylonian astronomy, when many of the journalists do not know what cuneiform is? Luckily, Ossendrijver was happy to share his experiences with us!

Many journalists, it seems, were happy to report about an unusual and more accessible discovery, especially because it also sheds a different light on Iraq, a country mainly in the news for war, suffering and the destruction of antiquities.

Please tell us a bit about yourself!

I came to Assyriology from astrophysics, which I studied in Utrecht, at a time when Hein Stadhouders taught Akkadian there at the faculty of theology. Through his courses I became interested in Assyriology, in particular Babylonian astronomy. I got the idea of doing research in that field, but it seemed difficult to realise at first.

I wrote a PhD in solar astrophysics and moved to Freiburg, Germany, to take up a postdoc and I continued to study Assyriology there. Eventually, in 2005, I switched with the support of Konrad Volk of Tübingen, who helped me write a proposal to the DFG for a project on Babylonian astronomy. After spending half a year at the NINO in Leiden I moved to Tübingen to carry out the project, which became my PhD in Assyriology (2010). I also spent a year at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York. In 2011 I joined the ranks of TOPOI at the Humboldt University in Berlin, since 2013 as a professor for the history of ancient science.

By the way, it is not at all necessary to study astrophysics before delving into Babylonian astronomy, but it does help if you have some basic knowledge of astronomy and mathematics.

In January 2016, you published a Late Babylonian astronomical tablet calculating the position of Jupiter using a ‘time-velocity graph’ in the journal Science. Can you briefly explain the significance of those findings?

The findings become significant if you look at them from a history-of-science perspective.

They prove that Babylonian astronomers were using a method for computing positions that was thought to have been invented in Europe in the 14th century AD. Apparently Babylonian scholars had made the same conceptual leap sometime between 350 BC and 50 BC. The new idea was to compute the distance traveled by a body – in this case the planet Jupiter as it moves with respect to the stars – from the area underneath the graph of its velocity against time.

This may not sound terribly exciting at all, but if you have studied some physics or mathematics it will remind you of integral calculus. The modern version of integral calculus was developed in the 17th century by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Any book on the history of physics or mathematics will tell you that its earliest precursor was invented the 14th century AD by a group of English scholars known as the Oxford Calculators and by Nicole Oresme, a philosopher from Paris. It now turns out that some Babylonian scholars already had the same idea.

The Greek astronomers used geometrical figures defined in real space – the three-dimensional space in which we live – but the Babylonian figures exist in a more abstract mathematical space whose dimensions are time and velocity.

For historians of astronomy it is also news that Babylonian astronomers were using geometrical methods at all. According to the history books they were supposed to have computed only with numbers, even though geometry was a very common topic in Babylonian mathematics. This is contrasted with ancient Greek astronomy, where geometrical methods were very common.

An interesting twist is that the Babylonian methods turn out to be very different from the Greek ones. The Greek astronomers used geometrical figures defined in real space – the three-dimensional space in which we live – but the Babylonian figures exist in a more abstract mathematical space whose dimensions are time and velocity. As mentioned, that kind of geometry reappears only in the 13th century AD.

Your article resulted in a huge wave of interviews and press coverage – there is an impressive list of these on your website. Had you anticipated the scale of this response?

I thought the topic was rather technical and not obviously attractive for a general public. I did not expect much interest, but instead it was an onslaught. In the course of 4 days I gave about 50 interviews. This is partly a consequence of Science putting the thing on the front cover and mentioning the article as item 1 in their press release. What also helped, I think, is that Assyriology and ancient astronomy are very unusual topics for Science. Most of their articles deal with extremely technical and intricate topics in biotechnology and chemistry that are almost impossible to convey to the general public. Many journalists, it seems, were happy to report about an unusual and more accessible discovery, especially because it also sheds a different light on Iraq, a country mainly in the news for war, suffering and the destruction of antiquities.

Your findings are of a relatively technical nature, and many of those in the public who understood the mathematical implications knew next to nothing about Babylonian culture, and vice versa. How did you overcome this challenge when communicating your results?

Most of the interviewers were journalists who report about science or archaeology. Some were trained in physics or mathematics; it was relatively easy to explain the mathematical details in that case. Very few journalists knew much about Mesopotamia. It took me a few interviews before I had figured out how to explain the main astronomical and mathematical issues to other journalists.

In many of the interviews, the journalists turn to rather basic issues, such as how you can read cuneiform, and on the general picture, such as what Babylonian culture was like. Tell us about your experience summarising these very general questions for a broader audience.

The most important thing is to avoid jargon, be very enthusiastic and, nevertheless, keep the answers relatively short.

As an Assyriologist it is easy to forget how little the general audience knows about ancient Mesopotamia nowadays. Journalists are well aware of this and they ask you to explain the most basic things, such as: where is Mesopotamia, when did the Babylonians live, what was their religion, etc. Even if they know it themselves they will ask you these questions if the interview is recorded for a wider audience. Some journalists wanted to know more about the temples, the economic system, kingship or the Mesopotamian state. I was certainly not always ready to give a satisfying answer to all these questions. The most important thing is to avoid jargon, be very enthusiastic and, nevertheless, keep the answers relatively short.

The Jupiter calculations were reported on by newspapers in Germany, England, the U.S., France, Iran, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, the Gulf, Estonia and Turkey, among others. How did you personally experience this broad international  outreach?

Overall it was a very nice experience to talk to journalists from different countries. With some I only had email contact. I also got to understand better under what pressure they work and, in the case of freelance journalists, how much effort they have to make to sell their stories to the media. However, many articles, some quite good, appeared without any interaction at all.

Did you come across any particular prejudice or misunderstanding about Babylonian culture when presenting your results? Was there any myth in particular that you tried to dispel?

Of course some of the classical misconceptions about ancient Mesopotamia showed up repeatedly. For example that the Babylonians wrote hieroglyphs on stone with a kind of chisel, that cuneiform is a language, or, a more serious one, that science began with the Greeks.

I am sure that this has been an instructive experience for you. In retrospect, would you have done anything differently?

In hindsight I could have prepared myself a bit better by thinking about how to answer all kinds of elementary questions about ancient Mesopotamia in a concise fashion, and by having a ready story line about the meaning of the tablets.

Is there any one interview or presentation about these results that stands out in your memory?

I had a lengthy interview on Skype video with a journalist of Bloomberg News, but he only used a tiny part of it in order to make some points about US education and Donald Trump’s policies, which he somehow tried to connect to the tablets. The most memorable one was a live interview in the 7’o clock news of BBC World TV, also through Skype video. Since they asked me only hours before it happened, I had no chance to change and had to appear in the physicist’s outfit I was wearing. Fortunately the redaction later assured me that they were very happy with the interview.

Do you have any advice for an Assyriological colleague facing such a wave of public interest in the future?

In order to prevent chaos I put each journalist who contacted me in a 30-minute time slot and I write down all the time slots on a piece of paper. This worked very well.

Another thing I want to mention is that many journalists, in particular those working for media devoted to popular science, culture or history, are interested in ancient Mesopotamia – much more so than realised by Assyriologists. We underestimate how eager they are for news about current research on ancient Mesopotamia. This is especially true when new findings reveal something that is either surprisingly recognizable or exotic from a modern point of view. I was repeatedly told that Assyriologists should talk more often to the press. They are not only looking for new findings but also background stories about our field, about the significance of ancient Mesopotamia. In fact the established channels for informing the press about our findings are rarely exploited by Assyriologists.

The easiest way to raise the interest of journalists is to upload a press release to one’s university website when a new finding is about to be published. Most universities have press officials who will assist in formulating a press release and uploading it. These releases are actually read by science journalists.

Image courtesy of Mathieu Ossendrijver.

I was repeatedly told that Assyriologists should talk more often to the press. They are not only looking for new findings but also background stories about our field, about the significance of ancient Mesopotamia.