Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | May 7, 2018

Without stars in the sky, would mathematics exist?

Imagine a mental experiment: what would happen if the atmospheric conditions on Earth were, in the last 5 or 10 thousand years, slightly different: a light haze obscured the stars without limiting solar radiation and thus not affecting development of agriculture etc. Would mathematics, as we know it, develop without the principal source and paradigm of precision: the movement of stars in the sky? Can anyone point to studies of history of precision as intellectual and technological concept?



  1. I think math would have evolved anyway since it is needed for accounting. The first cultures made registering of crops, property and debts necessary.

  2. My take – The only use for square roots in ancient mathematics is in the construction of astronomical tables. The only use for positional notation is the efficient extraction of square roots. (Anything else was done using calculators – abacus and finger registers, and your calculator really doesn’t care what your system of notation is.) So things would no doubt have looked very different.

    Neugebauer remarks, or claims (roughly) that ancient mathematics is astronomy (i.e., astrology).
    And he is well aware of ancient arithmetic, engineering, etc.

    Even with the stars visible, but without the acceptance of astrology, there wouldn’t have been any economic basis for the development of the profession …

    Here is a different question: if life had evolved on Mars rather than Earth, how much longer would it have taken to get a fair approximation to the distance to the sun? And how would it have been done?

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