Scientists use planetarium's advanced astronomical software to accurately date 2,500 year-old lyric poem

Scientists use advanced astronomical software to date 2,500 year-old lyric poem
Detail from a Pompeii fresco painting of Sappho holding a stylus

Physicists and astronomers from the University of Texas at Arlington have used advanced astronomical software to accurately date lyric poet Sappho's "Midnight Poem," which describes the night sky over Greece more than 2,500 years ago.

The scientists described their research in the article "Seasonal dating of Sappho's 'Midnight Poem' revisited," published today in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage. Martin George, former president of the International Planetarium Society, now at the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand, also participated in the work.

"This is an example of where the scientific community can make a contribution to knowledge described in important ancient texts, " said Manfred Cuntz, physics professor and lead author of the study. "Estimations had been made for the timing of this poem in the past, but we were able to scientifically confirm the season that corresponds to her specific descriptions of the night sky in the year 570 B.C."

Sappho's "Midnight Poem" describes a star cluster known as the Pleiades having set at around midnight, when supposedly observed by her from the Greek island of Lesbos.

The moon has set
And the Pleiades;
It is midnight,
The time is going by,
And I sleep alone.

(Henry Thornton Wharton, 1887:68)

Cuntz and co-author and astronomer Levent Gurdemir, director of the Planetarium at UTA, used advanced software called Starry Night version 7.3, to identify the earliest date that the Pleiades would have set at midnight or earlier in local time in 570 B.C. The Planetarium system Digistar 5 also allows creating the night sky of ancient Greece for Sappho's place and time.

"Use of Planetarium software permits us to simulate the more accurately on any date, past or future, at any location," said Levent Gurdemir."This is an example of how we are opening up the Planetarium to research into disciplines beyond astronomy, including geosciences, biology, chemistry, art, literature, architecture, history and even medicine."

The Starry Night software demonstrated that in 570 B.C., the Pleiades set at midnight on Jan. 25, which would be the earliest date that the poem could relate to. As the year progressed, the Pleiades set progressively earlier.

UTA scientists use advanced astronomical software to date 2,500 year-old lyric poem
Color composite image of the Pleiades from the Digitized Sky Survey. Credit: NASA/ESA/AURA/Caltech

"The timing question is complex as at that time they did not have accurate mechanical clocks as we do, only perhaps water clocks" said Cuntz. "For that reason, we also identified the latest date on which the Pleiades would have been visible to Sappho from that location on different dates some time during the evening."

The researchers also determined that the last date that the Pleiades would have been seen at the end of astronomical twilight - the moment when the Sun's altitude is -18 degrees and the sky is regarded as perfectly dark - was March 31.

"From there, we were able to accurately seasonally date this poem to mid-winter and early spring, scientifically confirming earlier estimations by other scholars," Cuntz said.

Sappho was the leading female poet of her time and closely rivaled Homer. Her interest in astronomy was not restricted to the "Midnight Poem." Other examples of her work make references to the Sun, the Moon, and planet Venus.

"Sappho should be considered an informal contributor to early Greek astronomy as well as to Greek society at large," Cuntz added. "Not many ancient poets comment on astronomical observations as clearly as she does."

Morteza Khaledi, dean of UTA's College of Science, congratulated the researchers on their work, which forms part of UTA's strategic focus on data-driven discovery within the Strategic Plan 2020: Bold Solutions | Global Impact.

"This research helps to break down the traditional silos between science and the liberal arts, by using high-precision technology to accurate date ancient poetry," Khaledi said. "It also demonstrates that the Planetarium's reach can go way beyond astronomy into multiple fields of research."

Dr. Manfred Cuntz is a professor of physics at UTA and active researcher in solar and stellar astrophysics, as well as astrobiology. In recent years he has focused on extra-solar planets, including stellar habitable zones and orbital stability analyses. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, in 1988.

Levent Gurdemir received his master's of science degree in physics from UTA and is the current director of the university's Planetarium. UTA uses the facility for research, teaching and community outreach, serving large numbers of K-12 students and the public at this local facility.


Explore further

Planetarium produces first active stereo 3-D planetarium show about NASA's SOFIA mission

Citation: Scientists use planetarium's advanced astronomical software to accurately date 2,500 year-old lyric poem (2016, May 13) retrieved 23 October 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2016-05-scientists-planetarium-advanced-astronomical-software.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
1327 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

May 13, 2016
"This is an example of where the scientific community can make a contribution to knowledge described in important ancient texts, " said Manfred Cuntz, physics professor and lead author of the study."

Cuntz? Perhaps a Freudian slip of sorts to take an interest in the literary works of a self-admitted lesbian from the Greek island of Lesbos. Is this by coincidence only, or contrived? Amusing, in any case.

May 13, 2016
Cuntz is interested in Sappho and Sappho is interested in Cuntz..

May 13, 2016
Cuntz is interested in Sappho and Sappho is interested in Cuntz..


LMAO
I know that somewhere in all this there is supposed to be a bone of seriousness. Somehow, I just can't find it. I mean why else would they do this?

May 14, 2016
Lack of education in ancient greek leads to nonsense research like this. Only an illiterate would translate  μέσαι δὲ νύκτεσ πάρα δ᾽ ἔρχετ᾽ ὤρα as precisely 12:00 oclock midnight. The phrase means ' the hours slip through the midst of the night.' The reason why modern english translators use the phrase 'midnight' instead of 'midst of the night' is because they are trying to capture the brevity of the Greek fragment through poetic economy in English. Ancient poets are not scientifically precise. (more)

May 14, 2016
Moreover, the author of the fragment (Hephaestion says its Sappho) clearly intends a sequence, rather than a precise moment: Δέδυκε μεν ἀ σελάννα καὶ Πληΐαδεσ means either 'Both the moon and the Pleiades have set', or 'The moon has set and then also the Pleiades' due to the poetic ambiguity of καὶ in the phrase. μέσαι δὲ νύκτεσ πάρα δ᾽ ἔρχετ᾽ ὤρα '' the hours slip through the midst of the night.' ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω 'I sleep alone'

HTK
May 14, 2016
SteveK, so you believe you know more than the so called experts in their field who have dedicated their existence on these matters...

Well, good for you... hitler thought he was a strategic genius too...

May 14, 2016
It's called being able to read the language. I speak Greek too and he's spot on.

And you must be an American to instantly shout IGNORANCE to someone that's done the hard yards.

May 17, 2016
Chil, 1. We get trolls from all over who do pretty much the same thing on here.
2. Don't try to lump all Americans in with someone like that.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more