On Wednesday, February 2, Deputy Events Editor Ava Slocum attended “Babylonian Modes of Thought and the Scientific Imagination,” the latest installment in SIPA’s weekly “Food for Thought” lecture series.
What do a famous Cambridge economist, a Russian ballerina, and ancient Babylonian science and mathematics have in common? Curiosity, and an awareness of “uncertainty,” or so Dr. Eduardo A. Escobar explained during Wednesday’s talk.
The lecture, held over Zoom, was part of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA)’s “Food for Thought” series, which brings in guest lecturers for weekly discussions on a broad range of scientific and social justice-related topics. Dr. Escobar, Assistant Professor of History of Science at the University of Bologna, is one of the world’s leading experts on the scientific habits of the ancients. His lecture, however, focused not just on the Babylonians themselves but also the centuries of study surrounding their contributions to our modern conception of science. People in the modern era have long been fascinated by Babylonian innovations and habits of mathematical thought… including the economist John Maynard Keynes, who, over the course of decades of study, became an enthusiastic scholar and admirer of ancient Babylonian thought.
At the start of the talk, Escobar stated that his own research centers not so much on individual Babylonian innovations but on the “modes of thinking” that these innovations reveal. Although many aspects of Babylonian math are present in our modern world on a day-to-day level (60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute…), much of the brilliance of Babyllonian mathematicians is clear not only from what calculations they did but how they approached more fundamental questions of considering mathematical concepts. As opposed to the math of the ancient Greeks which tended to focus on precision, from carefully derived Euclidean geometric laws to established rules for solving equations, Escobar described Babylonian thinking as “an open system” that formed the basis for modern algebra, “where the identity of all relevant variables and the relationships between them is not known.” This embrace of uncertainty, he said, was foundational to modern academic fields of study like economics, where factoring “adaptability within changing environments” into calculations is crucial.
Economics’s reliance on adapting to change may explain why Keynes, the English economist of “In the long run, we are all dead” fame, was so drawn to Babylonian habits of thought. According to Escobar, Keynes was first exposed to Babylon’s mathematical history when doing research into how early economies operated without physical money (as it turns out, Babylon and other cultures in the area had successful economies for thousands of years before they started minting coins). Keynes, after spending more and more time studying Babylon’s scientific advances, declared in a 1946 essay that even Isaac Newton’s mathematical genius had its roots in Babylonian innovations; he wrote in “Newton, The Man,” that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians.”
Keynes had company in his study of Newton and Babylon; during his time studying both at Cambridge, he was corresponding with the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, whom he married in 1925. She shared Keynes’s interest in ancient Babylon… but she once wrote him a letter saying that she had nothing but sympathy for his “babilonian [sic] madness.” (Maybe his letters to her were starting to get a little too one-note?)
Babylonian thinking also made an impact on Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote in his short story “The Lottery in Babylon,” “I have known what the Greeks did not: Uncertainty.” Responding to an audience member’s question about our ongoing fascination with the scientific genius of this ancient culture, Escobar mused that Babylon still captivates us because it represents a form of unrestrained, unrestricted inquiry; after all, “Babylonianism represented freedom from Greek mathematics instead of [being] a forerunner to it.”
Despite Babylon’s clear lasting impact on our culture, I thought it was interesting that Escobar, at the end of his lecture, mentioned that much of his work revolves around bringing more awareness and attention to how the “modes of thought” he described have influenced so many aspects of the present day. “What’s compelling to me,” he said in his final comments, “is that this story is not very well known at all–these connections haven’t been made.”
However, throughout the presentation he explained that thinking about how ancient Babylonian scientists approached problems can give us more insight into how best to engage with similar concepts in our present day. Appreciating the work of the Babylonians, he said, “should cause us again to wonder, to catch the anti-Euclidean bug and to engage in a new mode of thought, relevant to our present condition.”
More information about the “Food for Thought” lecture series, as well as recordings of past lectures, is available on the SIPA website.
Babylonian presentation slide via Zoom event screenshot