Hipparchus : biography

190 BC –

Hipparchus probably compiled a list of Babylonian astronomical observations; G. J. Toomer, an historian of astronomy, has suggested that Ptolemy’s knowledge of eclipse records and other Babylonian observations in the Almagest came from a list made by Hipparchus. Hipparchus’ use of Babylonian sources has always been known in a general way, because of Ptolemy’s statements. However, Franz Xaver Kugler demonstrated that the synodic and anomalistic periods that Ptolemy attributes to Hipparchus had already been used in Babylonian ephemerides, specifically the collection of texts nowadays called "System B" (sometimes attributed to Kidinnu).Franz Xaver Kugler, Die Babylonische Mondrechnung ("The Babylonian lunar computation"), Freiburg im Breisgau, 1900.

Hipparchus’s long draconitic lunar period (5458 months = 5923 lunar nodal periods) also appears a few times in Babylonian records. But the only such tablet explicitly dated is post-Hipparchus so the direction of transmission is not clear.

Life and work

Relatively little of Hipparchus’ direct work survives into modern times. Although he wrote at least fourteen books, only his commentary on the popular astronomical poem by Aratus was preserved by later copyists. Most of what is known about Hipparchus comes from Ptolemy’s (2nd century) Almagest, with additional references to him by Pappus of Alexandria and Theon of Alexandria (c. 4th century AD) in their commentaries on the Almagest; from Strabo’s Geographia ("Geography"), and from Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis historia ("Natural history") (1st century AD).For general information on Hipparchus see the following biographical articles: G. J. Toomer, "Hipparchus" (1978); and A. Jones, "Hipparchus."

There is a strong tradition that Hipparchus was born in Nicaea (Greek Νίκαια), in the ancient district of Bithynia (modern-day Iznik in province Bursa), in what today is the country Turkey.

The exact dates of his life are not known, but Ptolemy attributes to him astronomical observations in the period from 147 BC to 127 BC, and some of these are stated as made in Rhodes; earlier observations since 162 BC might also have been made by him. His birth date (c. 190 BC) was calculated by Delambre based on clues in his work. Hipparchus must have lived some time after 127 BC because he analyzed and published his observations from that year. Hipparchus obtained information from Alexandria as well as Babylon, but it is not known when or if he visited these places. He is believed to have died on the island of Rhodes, where he seems to have spent most of his later life.

It is not known what Hipparchus’ economic means were nor how he supported his scientific activities. His appearance is likewise unknown: there are no contemporary portraits. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries coins were made in his honour in Bithynia that bear his name and show him with a globe; this supports the tradition that he was born there.

Hipparchus is thought to be the first to calculate a heliocentric system, but he abandoned his work because the calculations showed the orbits were not perfectly circular as believed to be mandatory by the science of the time. As an astronomer of antiquity his influence, supported by Aristotle, held sway for nearly 2000 years, until the heliocentric model of Copernicus.

Hipparchus’ only preserved work is Τῶν Ἀράτου καὶ Εὐδόξου φαινομένων ἐξήγησις ("Commentary on the Phaenomena of Eudoxus and Aratus"). This is a highly critical commentary in the form of two books on a popular poem by Aratus based on the work by Eudoxus.Modern edition: Karl Manitius (In Arati et Eudoxi Phaenomena, Leipzig, 1894). Hipparchus also made a list of his major works, which apparently mentioned about fourteen books, but which is only known from references by later authors. His famous star catalog was incorporated into the one by Ptolemy, and may be almost perfectly reconstructed by subtraction of two and two thirds degrees from the longitudes of Ptolemy’s stars. The first trigonometric table was apparently compiled by Hipparchus, who is now consequently known as "the father of trigonometry".