TAMAS in brief: how and why care about astronomical tables?
For centuries across Eurasia, astronomical tables were constructed, compiled and copied to meet a wide range of religious, ritualistic and political needs, to make calendars, to predict the future astrologically, to understand the natural world. Such tables circulated among cultures and were appropriated and transformed by a great diversity of actors. Thus, the numerical data conveyed in these tables provide rich evidence for ancient scientific practices. For example, in tables we can recover how complex, massive numerical computations were handled in the ancient world and thus contribute to the history of computational mathematics. Tables also reveal how astral phenomena were modelled and how reasoning and prediction were shaped. As written documents of a special type, falling between computation per se and data storage, astronomical tables expose epistemic writing practices in their layouts on the page and their combination into “sets” of tables. Created by complex computation with often-interlinked algorithms, circulating tables generally were adapted to new contexts and purposes rather than recomputed from scratch. Thus in addition to their individual contents, astronomical tables viewed more generally can provide unmatched sources for studying the transmission of computational know-how, writing technologies and layouts, theoretical models, and numerical parameters. With enhanced digital editorial and analytical tools, scholars will be able to chart previously unrecognized paths of circulation, to learn how large collections of tables were shaped, and to track the spread and appropriation of particular computational practices.
A central goal of TAMAS is to bring together emerging and more senior scholars. By working together through carefully selected case studies, such collaboration encourages both the transmission of tacit know-how generally not found in scholarly publications as well as the critical reappraisal of the traditional or fundamental research questions in the discipline.
The project will focus on two sets of questions:
- What type of database should we design in order to “edit” sources of the ancient astral sciences in the context of the digital humanities? How can a single tool handle diverse tabular layouts, different types of numbers, different kinds of errors and variants between copies, as well as the differences in publishing results in paper and digital formats?
- What kinds of tools should we create to explore materials within this database and to analyse these sources? How can we employ modern computational power with the necessary attention to the historical computation practices of the actors? How can we describe the algorithms presented in texts and their eventual effective uses in computing tables?
These two groups of questions are obviously closely related and need to be treated together in order to guarantee the compatibility of the analytical tools with the database on which they should operate. For the first group of questions we intend to produce innovative table- and parameter-databases and to develop new ways to publish our research in conjunction with well established journals in the field such as the Journal for the History of Astronomy and SCIAMVS. For the second set of questions we will create shared, historically based computation routines allowing us to explore in new ways the numerical content of astronomical tables. These efforts will be based on original, individual cases studies on specific sources by each participant in the project. These studies will be published as a book that will be the first exploration, of this breadth, of these methodological issues
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