Project (2010-2011)

Thinking about Rows and Columns: On Tables, Writing Formats and the Making and Preserving of Knowledge in Western Astronomy

This project explored the epistemological significance of the “table” for Western astronomical practice over a period of two millennia. Most histories of astronomy, whether they privilege theory, worldview, instrumentation, mathematics, patronage, professionalization, or cultural significance, feature dramatic discontinuities, especially if their narratives stretch from the Babylonians through Newton. If, however, we privilege the “table”—a two-dimensional surface structured by rows and columns—can we write a different astronomical history?

Tables, as rows and columns, have a long history, stretching back to the origins of writing. It took 1,000 years after the invention of writing in Sumer for the first administrative tables (livestock depots) to appear around –2000; mathematical cuneiform tables (for areas of rectangular fields) arose about the same time. Astronomical information in tabular format was compiled by –1000; astronomical observations by –600; and predictive tables for planetary motion by –300. Extant cuneiform tablets have allowed scholars to work out this early chronology of the table. Yet the epistemic implications of the tabular format remain less well explored. What happens to knowledge when it is forced into rows and columns? Into cells of fixed sizes whose contents can be labeled? When certain cells generate their own content via algorithms related to the content of other cells? Into a grid where blank cells beg to be filled in? Writing tables, we hypothesize, is not like writing prose.

To consider such questions, this project explored case studies ranging from Babylonian cuneiform tablets and Greek mathematical astronomy to medieval Arabic and Latin astronomical tables and record-keeping for the earliest large-scale European programs of astronomical observation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.