Manuscript Containing Missing Details of Ptolemy’s Meteoroscope Decrypted
A parchment, part of a larger manuscript found in the library of the Bobbio Abbey in Italy, is believed to be authored by ancient Greek mathematician, astronomer, and geographer Claudius Ptolemy. It provides new insights into Ptolemy's work and sheds light on an important tool used in ancient astronomy - the armillary instrument, also known as Ptolemy’s Meteoroscope. It was primarily a tool used to calculate heights and distances in relation to celestial bodies.
Ptolemy’s Meteoroscope: An Astronomical Marvel
The manuscript describes the construction and uses of this ancient tool for tracing distances and the stars. Ptolemy’s Meteoroscope was used for astronomical observations and calculations, and could be used to determine a range of information such as one's latitude in degrees from the equator, the exact date of a solstice or equinox, or the apparent location of a planet in the zodiac.
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It was a complex device consisting of nested and mobile metal rings that could be used for astronomical observations and calculations, according to the study published in The Archive for History of Exact Sciences . It had been referenced in several ancient texts, including Ptolemy's own book on mapmaking, ‘Geography’.
The structure and operation of the instrument had been unknown until now.
Complete system of rings of the meteoroscope, not to scale. In the online version, the “astrolabe” ring is in red and the “upright” and “all-tilter” rings in green. (Jones, A et al/ Archive for History of Exact Sciences )
While references to the instrument were found in various ancient texts , details of its structure and operation were lacking until the discovery of this manuscript. The text provides a detailed description of each component of the instrument, how they were to be made, and how they should be put together .
Reconstructing and Piecing Together a Complex Text
It was years of painstaking effort for the group of researchers from Sorbonne and New York Universities, who had severe difficulty reconstructing the text. The manuscript was written on a recycled piece of parchment and had remained a mystery for centuries. In fact, only a few words had previously been read from it, which were not enough to discern its content beyond it being related to astronomy.
"The pages in the manuscript with the scarcely visible Greek text were discovered back in 1819 by Angelo Mai, but he was unable to read most of the pages," Alexander Jones, one of the lead researchers on the study, told Newsweek. "[He also] made the situation much worse for subsequent scholars by applying a chemical treatment to the pages that was supposed to bring out the writing but in fact just stained them dark brown."
Top: UV fluorescence image by Lumière Technology. Upside-down Latin overtext in dark brown and Greek undertext in light brown. Bottom: color image with superimposed tracings of Greek undertext. (© Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Mondadori Portfolio/ Archive for History of Exact Sciences )
The team started analyzing the manuscript in detail in January 2020 using multispectral imaging techniques to reveal the hidden ink. Collaborating primarily by email due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the team succeeded in deciphering enough of the manuscript to identify it as Ptolemy's lost book on the nine-ringed instrument he named the "Meteoroscope."
Using multispectral imaging techniques, the team was able to reveal the hidden ink and decipher the long-lost message. Despite the significant progress made, some of the pages of the manuscript remain difficult to read, partly due to the thorough erasure of the Greek writing and the presence of the Latin text of Isidore of Seville 's Etymologies on top of the Greek traces.
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Understanding Ptolemy and the Discovered Manuscript
Ptolemy's work is considered to be one of the most important in the history of science, particularly in the field of astronomy. He is known for his contributions to the understanding of the motion of celestial bodies , as well as his development of the geocentric model of the universe, which placed Earth at the center of the cosmos.
In addition, the manuscript describes how the instrument could be used for a range of applications, including determining latitude, calculating the date of solstices and equinoxes, and determining the apparent location of planets in the zodiac, information that was not previously available.
The parchment on which the manuscript was written had been repurposed from disused books and was found in the library of the Bobbio Abbey in Italy. The parchment was a palimpsest, a recycled piece of parchment with traces of the original text erased or obscured by new writing.
The manuscript is written in two parts, with the first part detailing how each component of the instrument should be made and how they were to be put together, and the second part consisting of short chapters describing how to use the instrument for specific observations or calculations.
This is unique among Ptolemy's surviving works, as he typically only briefly describes the instrument's structure and how to use it, before focusing on the observations and calculations made with the device. Some of the pages are still difficult to read, and the team is continuing to analyze the manuscript to uncover further information.
"With improved imaging and image-processing, and benefiting from knowing the subject and the author—Ptolemy has a distinctive style and vocabulary that it helps to be familiar with—we are making substantial progress towards as complete and accurate a transcription as possible, but it will take a while to get there,” concluded Jones.
Top image: The Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan undergoing imaging to reveal the hidden text. Source: Lumiere Technology /Pascal Cotte and Salvatore Apicella
By Sahir Pandey
Dewan, P. 2023. Ptolemy's Lost Manuscript Discovered in Book Found in Medieval Abbey . Available at: https://www.newsweek.com/ptolemy-lost-manuscript-discovered-medieval-abbey-1790809.
Gysembergh, V., et al. 2023. Ptolemy’s treatise on the meteoroscope recovered . Archive for History of Exact Sciences, 77. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00407-022-00302-w.
What if the music of the celestial spheres actually existed and it was just Copernicus's faith that he was more right than Ptolemy as to the true nature of the cosmos that made it so what if the power of faith can change the universe?
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