First Workshop 22-26 June 2015

Analysing and editing numerical tables from ancient astral sciences 22-26 June 2015

Organisation :
Matthieu Husson (CNRS-SYRTE, Observatoire de Paris) ; Richard Kremer (Darmouth college, USA) ; Michela Malpangotto (CNRS-SYRTE, Observatoire de Paris) ; Clemency Montelle (Canterbury University, New Zealand) ;
Salle du Conseil du bâtiment Perrault, Observatoire de Paris (Entrée au 77 avenue Denfert-Rochereau)


The history of ancient astronomy undergoes now, as other domains in the history of sciences, a profound and important evolution: new approaches, borrowed essentially from the history of mathematics, paired with “digital humanities” tools and leads to the emergence of new questions, to the building of new tools and original international research project.

Research now is aiming not only at studying abstract astronomical theories expressible by the values of a few numerical parameters, but at recovering intellectual practices in their epistemological, social and material dimensions. It is then essential, relying on the sources themselves, to understand the precise computation techniques which led to the different tabular corpuses and the relation of these tables to the texts and diagrams that surround them. These questions require an elaboration of new tools in the context of the “digital humanities”. For instance we need to handle large corpuses of tables, generally built other centuries, in their astronomical dimensions (underlying models, parameters) mathematical dimensions (type of numbers, layout of tables, procedures for use or generation), historical dimensions (date, place and milieu of production) and material dimensions (which supports for the tables, what association of tables in sources). These new questions underlies a number of projects concerning ancient astral sciences sources in Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Cuneiform and Latin supported by European, Indian, Chinese and American institutions. Each of these projects has its own specificities and purposes but all would benefit from a collective reflexion arena and the impact of these on the field of history of sciences as a whole would be great.

However this new researches are emerging not in opposition to, but as an extension of previous scholarship. Thus a central aspect of this workshop is to gather younger and more senior scholars in order, not only to allow the transmission of know-how which generally isn’t found in scholarly publication, but also to set up an innovative and challenging discussion on these fundamental questions for the discipline. The work will be essentially devoted to the following questions:

  • What type of database should we design in order to “edit” the sources of ancient astronomy in the context of the digital humanities: how to account for the table layouts, the different types of numbers, the different types of errors and variants between copies, how to articulate the paper and digital format of the publication?
  • What type of tools should we elaborate to explore these databases and analyse these sources? How to articulate the modern computation power with the necessary attention to the actual computation practices of the actors? How to articulate the description of the algorithms in texts and their eventual effectives uses in tables.

These two groups of questions are obviously closely related and need to be treated together in order to guaranty the compatibility of the exploration and analysis tools with the database on which they should operate. Common and transversal work on these questions is thus essential to allow for the sharing of results produced by the different projects concerned with astral sciences tables around the world.

These pragmatic questions will allow work on specific case studies of tables in the astral sciences, which each participant will bring from their own field. However they will also be the occasion of broader reflection on the different elements of this new approach to the history of astronomy.

We are planning the organisation of two such workshops (June 2015 and 2016) in order to prepare a collection of essays to be published in a peer reviewed international journal. In this first workshop mornings will be devoted to presentation and discussion and afternoon are mostly kept free to allow for more in depth work in small group among the participants.
Full Program June 22-26 2015