Dating an Eclipse

Imagine it’s 1178 BC and you’re in the middle of writing one of the most essential works in the western canon, when all of the sudden an intense eclipse takes form ominously in the distance, leaving an indelible mark on an important passage in book 20. As the exhaustive research of the mathematical physicist Marcelo Magnasco reveals, this is exactly what happened to Homer on April 16th of that year, when he was penning “Theoclymenus’s prophecy” and a total lunar eclipse fell over the Ionian Islands. The passage, as Magnasco suggests in today’s Big Think interview, thus acts as a description of the baffling phenomenon.

In order to illustrate this, Magnasco tracked references in the text to Mercury, Venus, and the moon in relation to the rotation of these celestial bodies between the years 1250-1115 B.C., a process which left this day as the only suitable date.


Sound esoteric? Maybe, but Magnasco’s research also represents a valuable merger between the sciences and the humanities, employing the tools of the modern era to shed new light on some of the humanities’ centuries-old academic impasses. Imagine, for instance, if an analogous technique were applied to dating, say, The Old Testament.

Magnasco performed this research as a hobby, and his day-job as the head of Rockfeller University’s Lab of Mathematical Physics has yielded a number of other equally fascinating findings. He has, for instance, been a pioneering figure in discovering how our mind actually processes the information derived from our senses, demonstrating, for example, that what we hear actually has a powerful influence on what we see.

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