The problems of astronomical dating methods

A lunar laser retroreflector

This is part 2 of a series on conspiracy theories which allege the scholarly consensus on ancient European history is wrong. Please read part one for important disclaimers.

The moon travels around the Earth at 2,288 miles per hour. Its nightly journey through the sky has fascinated us for as long as there have been humans. Astronomy is one of the oldest natural sciences and astronomical knowledge was highly developed, even in antiquity.

The moon doesn’t travel at a perfectly constant speed. The Apollo Program astronauts left laser retroreflectors behind on the surface and by bouncing laser beams off them we can detect that the moon is slowly accelerating, at a rate of -25.858 arc seconds per century per century (source: NASA).

The NASA page I just cited contains at the bottom a vague and puzzling statement:

“The secular acceleration of the Moon is very poorly known and may not be constant”

This bland assertion hides a strange and obscure secret, one that opens the doorway to a spiral of mysteries, lies and allegations of historical corruption on a vast scale. It is therefore an excellent place to start our investigation of the most improbable meta-historical conspiracy theory of all: that the European timeline is 1000 years shorter than the world believes. Adherents of this theory think we’re not living in 2019 at all — they think it’s the year 1019.

In the early 70’s an American astronomer named Robert R. Newton stumbled on a problem he couldn’t resolve. It started with his attempt to establish a long term measurement of lunar acceleration throughout time. By using historical descriptions of the night sky rather than simply extrapolating current laser-determined values backwards, Newton calculated values for lunar acceleration stretching centuries into the past. But the values that he kept getting were, quite literally, physically impossible.

In a 1972 paper titled “Astronomical evidence concerning non-gravitational forces in the Earth-Moon system”, he wrote:

“Evidence that does not involve any assumptions about the present values shows strongly that there was a ‘square wave’ in the accelerations that lasted from about 700–1300 AD, and that the accelerations were different by a factor of perhaps 5 during the time of this wave from what they were at neighbouring times …. There are no satisfactory explanations of the accelerations. Existing theories of tidal friction are quite inadequate.”

What could have made the moon change its acceleration by such a massive amount during the dark ages? It would have taken an event of truly cataclysmic proportions to have affected an object the size of the moon, yet no such event is known.

Newton was first and foremost a scientist. Unable to understand the mysterious “non-gravitational forces” he’d stumbled on, he started pulling on string to see where it led. The answer, he concluded, was that the most famous astronomer in history was a con-man and fraud; the author of an epic deception which destroyed progress in astronomical research for over a thousand years.

A baroque imagining of Ptolemy

The oldest surviving work of astronomy is the famous Almagest, by Claudius Ptolemy. Conventionally dated to the second century AD it is one of the most influential scientific texts of all time. For nearly 1500 years the Almagest was the primary textbook on astronomical theory. It canonised the assumption that the Earth was at the centre of the universe, but was an otherwise remarkable work of science: after explaining spherical trigonometry it goes on to provide a model of the heavens that describes the motion of the moon, sun, stars and planets, along with tables of data that could be used to calculate their positions. It also contained a catalogue of over 1000 stars. More importantly for us, he included a variety of observations of solar and lunar eclipses.

Because the solar system is a cyclical system, using modern theory configurations of the sky can be put into ephemeris calculation programs to derive an infinitely repeating series of solutions on the timeline, with the accuracy of the ‘fix’ depending on how much detail the astronomical observation has.

Ephemeris calculations are one of the reasons you can sometimes find historical dates given to fantastic accuracy — often to the exact day — despite being thousands of years in the past and using dating systems that aren’t the same as ours.

Modern history takes the Almagest’s data for granted. No mention of any controversy can be found on its Wikipedia page. Yet over the centuries a small number of scholars have expressed grave doubts about this book. Tycho Brahe, a 16th century astronomer, took many careful measurements of the night sky and discovered the Almagest couldn’t be correct. In the early 19th century French astronomer and historian Jean Baptiste Delambre wrote a history of astronomy in which he alleged Ptolemy was a fraud who hadn’t actually seen most of his claimed observations, but rather, had worked them out using tables.

But the harshest criticism of Ptolemy came from R. R. Newton. His discovery of “non-gravitational forces” caused him to explore the most likely explanation: that the historical records he had used to calculate old accelerations were wrong. In the only book he ever published, The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy” (1977), Newton wrote:

“It is becoming perfectly clear that no statements made by Ptolemy can be accepted at face value … All the research based on the ‘Syntax’ [the Almagest] must be started from scratch once again, be it historical or astronomical.”
I can make but a single final judgement: the ‘Syntax’ has turned out more detrimental to astronomy than any other book ever written, and the astronomical science would benefit greatly, had this book never existed.
Therefore, Ptolemy is by no means the greatest astronomer of the antiquity, but rather an even odder figure: he is the most successful con man in the history of science.

Given that part one of this series discussed a conspiracy theory in which much of ancient history is forged, it might seem like the conclusions of Newton, Delambre and Brahe are a forgone conclusion — for some mysterious reason Ptolemy faked (or in some tellings, stole) his observations and this went undetected for 1500 years. But there are some problems with this narrative.

Renaissance humanists alleged to have forged “ancient” books were assigned relatively simple motives: ultra wealthy nobles were paying vast sums for the recovery of antiquarian texts, and sometimes political machinations depended on the outcome of historical debates. Poggio Bracciolini was supposedly able to buy an entire house on the proceeds of just one book he (claimed he) recovered from the rotting and dusty library of a remote monastery. Many claims about ancient chains of custody stretch plausibility past breaking point, so this belief in ancient forgers is not entirely unreasonable and has cropped up repeatedly throughout history. Sometimes it was justified — the famous Donation of Constantine turned out to be a forgery after hundreds of years of being used to prop up the power of the Catholic Church.

But the history of the Almagest traces back to multiple sources through both Arab and Greek manuscripts, hence it being known by two names; the other name being, as we just saw, “the Syntax”. Copies predate the Renaissance by centuries. There are no obvious motives for anyone to invent tables of astronomical observations, and nobody was (as far as I know) ever paid large sums for its recovery.

In 1980 a paper by the Soviet mathematician Anatoly Fomenko was published that posed a new explanation for Newton’s findings. As it was written behind the Iron Curtain it had no impact on western scholarship and can be hard to find online, so I’ve uploaded a copy of it to my website. In “The jump of the second derivative of the moon’s elongation”, Fomenko takes a different approach. Instead of assuming the conventional datings of ancient eclipses are correct (or nearly correct) and then calculating an impossible value for ancient lunar acceleration, he assumes lunar acceleration remained essentially constant and casts a much wider search for solutions to the ancient eclipse descriptions than makes sense given conventional chronology.

Taking the triad of eclipses described by Thucydides in the ancient Greek text “The History of the Peloponnesian War” as an example, he states that the conventional dating of 430 BC for the war requires a very fuzzy match against the actual description of the eclipses: several aspects must be discarded to make this timeline work properly. By using every detail provided by Thucydides and then accepting the most precise match that falls within the range 900 BC to 1600 AD (i.e. much wider than is possible in the standard timeline), Fomenko asserts that there are two solutions within this range. One places the triad at 1133 AD, 1140 AD and 1151 AD. The other places it at 1039 AD, 1046 AD and 1057 AD. In other words, solar simulation places the ancient Peloponnesian War in the middle ages.

Fomenko and Newton discussed some of the problems related to the dating of ancient eclipses in a series of letters during the 1970s. Their findings took them down different paths. Whilst both scientists embarked on re-evaluations of historical documents, Fomenko concluded that whilst some documents were indeed either forged or ‘edited’ by later copyists, many works identified as such were not in fact fake but rather hopelessly misdated to such an extreme extent that fraud was mistakenly being assumed.

For Fomenko this kicked off a decades-long obsession to uncover the historical truth, as he saw it. In a massively detailed astronomical analysis of the Almagest he concluded:

“If we are to translate the resultant dating result into regular years, we shall see that the possible dating interval in the Almagest catalogue begins in 600 A.D. and ends in 1300 A.D.”

In other words, if you assume the moon hasn’t been hit by any massive force, and that Ptolemy isn’t a giant fraud, the only explanation left is that the Almagest’s measurements date from a radically different era to that which was conventionally understood — at the most extreme, over 1000 years different.

A section of the Almagest

Anatoly Fomenko is a character of key importance in the world of alternative timelines and we will return to his ideas in much greater detail later. Suffice it to say that he is merely the latest and most committed in a long line of scientists and scholars who developed suspicions about the conventional chronology, and he is by no means alone. Other important characters in this world include:

  • Most famously, Sir Isaac Newton, who in his 87,000 word book “Chronology of ancient kingdoms amended”, claimed the timeline was wrong and many ancient legends and gods were in fact duplicates of each other.
  • French scholar and Church historian Jean Hardouin who towards the end of his career came to believe that with the exception of the works of Homer, Herodotus and Cicero, the Natural History of Pliny, the Georgics of Virgil, and the Satires and Epistles of Horace, all the ancient classics of Greece and Rome had been manufactured by monks in the 13th century. He also claimed many ancient works of art and coins had been likewise manufactured, and that this was feasible due to the actually very small amount of surviving evidence.
  • John Wilson Ross, who I quoted from in part one. Ross argued in an anonymous Victorian-era book that the Annals of Tacitus were forged by Poggio Bracciolini.
  • English historian Edwin Johnson, who in his books “The Pauline Epistles” and “The rise of English culture” argued that the dark ages never happened, but had instead been invented by monks in the early 16th century.
  • Nikolai Morozov, a Russian revolutionary who predicted the existence of the inert elements in the periodic table, was thrown in prison for advocating terrorism as a path to achieving a democratic Russia and who speculated that much of human history had been forged.
  • German historian Heribert Illig, who created the “Phantom Time hypothesis”. The PTH asserts that Charlemagne never existed and nearly 300 years was deliberately inserted into European history as part of a political power game.
  • Peter James, a British historian who advanced the theory that the “Greek Dark Ages” (a dark age between the fall of Mycenae and the rise of ancient Greece) didn’t exist at all, and is merely the result of mis-understanding ancient Egyptian chronology.

Where am I going with this?

Alternative chronologies all share a few characteristics:

  1. They attack the reliability of academia.
  2. They usually shorten history by removing various dark ages in which civilisation supposedly collapsed, claiming that they are in reality artefacts of mis-dating.
  3. They often but not always come with attempts at reconstructing the ‘true’ timeline. Often debunkings or disputes with these theories focus on the reconstructions, rather than the attacks on conventional history.

Of these three it’s the first two that interest me the most.

It’s becoming steadily clear that much academic research is hopelessly compromised, even in fields for which facts are theoretically provable via experiments. The massive problems the fields of social science are experiencing right now are well documented already, and psychology — to its credit — has started to seriously engage with the problem by re-evaluating decades of research. Less well known is that large chunks of biology are also garbage (the story of 5-HTTLPR being a case in point), but again, a subset of scientists have started to seriously analyse the problem from within the mainstream of the field.

In contrast, very little is known about the extent to which history is wrong. People who allege the equivalent of ‘non-reproducibility’ (i.e. bad science) in the field of history tend to be ignored or written off as cranks despite often providing great amounts of detail to support their views. Debunkings of their ideas tend to focus on the unreliability of their alternate chronologies or the supposed unlikelihood of all of academia being wrong, which would be totally fair game if it weren’t for apparent double standards: the faults the conspiracy theorists are (often rightly) accused of are the very same ones conventional historians suffer too. For example a common allegation is that alternative chronologies ignore evidence that contradicts them — but a key plank that grants the conspiracy theories credibility is that scholars routinely ignore or blow off evidence which contradicts the conventional timeline too.

Outsiders from more systematic fields like mathematics or computer science are frequently involved in tearing down years or decades of academic consensus in softer fields — the “data thugs” are one notorious example of this. It therefore shouldn’t be entirely surprising that mathematicians and astronomers (i.e. outsiders) are often at the forefront of attacking conventional history.

In the reproducibility crisis the attackers have wisely resisted the temptation to provide a “corrected” view of psychology, cancer biology and so on. They are content to merely point out the unreliability of existing scholarship and if that leaves a hole in human knowledge where it previously appeared to be full, so be it. Most anti-historians can’t resist the temptation to become historians themselves and thus open themselves up to the very same attacks they make on others. It would be better to limit discussion to exposing the unreliability of conventional chronology. If that yields a result of “we really have no idea what happened in ancient times” then, well … better to have “known unknowns”, as Donald Rumsfeld memorably put it, than the alternative of false knowledge.