UTA Planetarium Cracks Ancient Greek Mystery

When it comes to unlocking the mystery of an Ancient Greek poem, a planetarium probably isn't the first place you'd think to turn.

But in between the daily visits, programs and Pink Floyd light shows it runs, the Planetarium at the University of Texas-Arlington was able to shed light on this academic puzzle.      

“Field trips and public shows are only part of what we do here," UTA Planetarium director Levent Gurdemir said.

Several months ago, UTA physics professor Manfred Cuntz went to the planetarium with a unique proposition. He was trying to date a famous work by the Greek poet Sappho — and believed the answer was written in the stars.

“We had to extrapolate information from the literature," Cuntz said.

One section of the poem describes where a specific group of stars called the Pleiades was located in the night sky. Using them as a guide, Cuntz hoped they could recreate that same sky inside the planetarium, then figure out how long ago it would have looked like that.

"It is very easy to estimate the sky tomorrow or the sky yesterday," said Gurdemir. "But going back several thousand years in the past or future is not easy."

Because the earth's rotation is not completely uniform, Gurdemir said there are many factors you have to adjust for as you try to build an ancient sky. Fortunately, new technology has simplified things — and with the help of a specialized computer program, they were able to do just that.

“I think it’s fascinating that we have the ability to connect science to liberal arts," Cuntz said. 

They ultimately determined the poem was written at least 2,500 years ago, sometime in the late winter or early spring. Their work was recently published in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage.

"It's a feeling of accomplishment that's great," said Gurdemir.

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