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Eclipse as tale of computation

There’s a lot of media coverage on the upcoming total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. More attention than I remember for any eclipse event. These events have been noteworthy throughout history. Varied reactions and interpretations. This article “How Eclipses Drove 2,000 Years of Math: A Q&A With Stephen Wolfram” (August 18, 2017) highlights how such events advanced techniques to predict them.

Wolfram’s team put together the eclipse calculator in a matter of weeks, but it prompted an excursion into eclipse history that Wolfram explores in a new blog post, digging into “a multimillennium tale of computation.” Luckily, Wolfram said, the primary documents of eclipse history happened to be in the three non-English languages he knows “at any decent level”: Latin, ancient Greek and French. Moving diagrams throughout the post illustrate the mathematics of eclipse timing.

Stephen Wolfram: I had fun tracking down all this history. I knew a large fraction of this history, but I did not understand the thread of the whole progression of things. What I hadn’t fully internalized is how central the problem of the moon was to science for a really long time. It was really through — after science woke up in the 1500s, the problem of the moon was almost a driving force for the developments in physics and mathematics and so on, right up through the end of the 1800s. For me, as a physicist, so to speak, coming of age in the 1970s, the problem of the moon seemed like it was solved. But it turned out it was really a dominant thing for such a long time.

The math in quantum mechanics is daunting. But even Newtonian computation remains challenging. “The moon is a particularly nasty three-body problem.”


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