Episode 33: January 27th 2010 : Ptolemy’s Almagest

If you had the task of gathering all of humanity’s knowledge of cosmology in one place, how would you do it? Answers to questions such as, How big is the Earth? At what date and time will the Moon be full again? What makes the Sun shine? How old is the Universe? Today a good place to start the project would be to scour the sources online. In about 150AD Claudius Ptolemaeus, better known as Ptolemy, a Greek national with Roman citizenship living in Egypt, attempted to do just that. He is best known for his encyclopaedic work written in ancient Greek “Syntaxis Mathematica”, perhaps better known as the Almagest from the Arabic Al magisti “the greatest”. He was an industrious author of many scientific and mathematical treaties but he also collected works going back hundreds of years.

The Almagest was the premier source of knowledge for describing the cosmos for almost two thousand years. Nothing of the original survives, only hand written copies of hand written copies.

Today’s episode is partially about one such copy, A seven hundred year old manuscript identified recently in the special collections of the Brotherton Library in the University of Leeds. Only parts of it is the Almagest. The manuscript was kept by Anthony Askew,   Joseph windham and then  lord Brotherton who donated it to the University of Leeds.

This episode is also about how information is transmitted through history. The value that successive individuals, societies and civilisations put on them. The inevitable errors in the mishmash of translations over hundreds of years from one language (Ancient Greek, Syriac, Arabic, Latin and English) to another or the periodic attempts by one scribe to diligently copy the work of another. In early 2009 Dr Regine May and Professor Malcolm Heath came across a 14th century manuscript catalogued as a work of Astrology and discovered it contained elements of Ptolemy’s Almagest. The manuscript in three volumes has yet to receive detailed  scholarly scrutiny.

In today’s episode there are 4 contributors.  Dr Regine May outlines how the almost accidental discovery of this manuscript came about and Dr Oliver Pickering, the keeper of the special collections describes how the library acquired the manuscript. A live recording of Professor Malcolm Heath, Dr Allan Chapman and Dr Oliver Pickering inspecting the manuscript in the Brotherton Library.


Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher of the late 19th century who read and wrote about the ancient Greek culture. Perhaps it was the writings from the ancient Greek civilisation which lead him to conclude The future influences the present just as much as the past.


  1. Western science had origins in Greece is fake it was Arabs with Hindus who formulated known science. Ptolemy probably had little contribution save what the Xians decided to attribute another is Element by Euclid he aslo never existed Ref C J Raju Is science of-western origin

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