Ad Astra Per Aspera
A Brief Review of Decoding the Heavens, by Jo Marchant
Haysville Sun Times, Friday, August 7
By Ken Bell
More than two thousand years ago, sailing the dangerous waters between Cape Malea and the western tip of the island of Crete, a small cargo vessel bearing a full load of bronze and marble statuary and one small yet remarkable device sank in heavy seas off the tiny Greek island of Antikythera.
Two millennia later, Greek sponge divers by happenstance discovered the sunken treasure and brought as much as they could salvage to the surface. The marvelous works of art captured all the immediate attention of an excited world, while the tiny sea-battered, ravaged and encrusted lump of wood and metal that bore the small device was ignored. In the course of months it weathered, dried, split open and revealed its hidden secret: a large number of corroded yet clearly discernible interlocking precision bronze gearwheels.
It has taken more than a century to begin to understand that secret, its purposes, its workings and its manifold implications. Jo Marchant’s little book Decoding the Heavens is the story of that mechanism, its discovery and the efforts to comprehend it. Amazingly, the Antikythera mechanism is nothing less than a 2000-year-old analogue computer of astounding sophistication. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “though it is more than 2,000 years old, the Antikythera Mechanism represents a level that our technology did not match until the eighteenth century, and must therefore rank as one of the greatest basic mechanical inventions of all time.”
Indeed, as Marchant relates, “Clarke also realised how much had been lost. It was unsettling to think that in the Antikythera mechanism the Greeks had come so close to our modern technology, only to fall back again for so long. He articulated his thoughts a few years later in a lecture on the limits of technology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. If the Greeks had been able to build on their knowledge, Clarke told his audience, the Industrial Revolution might have begun more than a millennium ago. ‘By this time we would not merely be pottering around on the Moon. We would have reached the nearer stars.’”
This extraordinary instrument, smaller than a standard laptop computer, used not less than 30 bronze gearwheels to make calculations based upon multiple cycles of the Solar system. It performed a number of very sophisticated calendar functions, displaying lunar phases and solar positions, predicting both solar and lunar eclipses, and almost certainly displaying the positions of the five planets known to the ancients, among numerous other related values. The Antikythera mechanism is without doubt profoundly important, the single most illuminating artifact yet found from ancient Greece.
The story of the discovery of this device and the slowly emerging comprehension of its remarkable facility is truly fascinating, and Marchant tells it well. I do, however, strongly recommend that you read it in conjunction with the footnotes and commentary added to a recent Greek translation of the text, which are reproduced (in English) on the website of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project. If you’re interested in learning more about the device, check out the information and resources on the library weblog or visit the library website itself.
I strongly recommend that you explore other resources available on the web, most especially the website of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project. This website encompasses, and contains links to, a wealth of intriguing and, in some cases, essential information.
The footnotes and extensive commentary added to the Greek translation of Decoding the Heavens, as mentioned above, are of special importance. They correct some certain errors, elucidate much that would otherwise be less clear, and add collateral perspectives to the text which are vital for a balanced viewpoint. (In this regard see also more commentary from the friends and colleagues of Allan Bromley, who truly is savaged – and I believe that the evidence on balance indicates unfairly so – in the book. It is a blemish which requires correction.)
The Antikythera Mechanism Project site also contains extraordinarily interesting and valuable links to the full text of the Nature article of August 2006 as submitted and the excellent 2006 Nature article supplementary notes, as well as the Nature article of March 2008 as submitted and equally valuable supplementary notes.
There are also two amazing videos which you should be certain to view: this YouTube video demonstrating Michael Wright’s working model of the Antikythera mechanism, and narrated by Jo Marchant; and this excellent short video on the Antikythera mechanism from the journal Nature.
Equally interesting is Hewlett Packard’s quite remarkable interactive relighting of the mechanism using the Java Runtime Environment.
There are other resources of which you should avail yourself: notes on solid models of the Antikythera mechanism, including Michael Wright’s model, prominently mentioned in the book (and featured in the video noted above); New Scientist’s brief book review of Jo Marchant’s Decoding the Heavens; and the Scientific American article from last June, featuring the Antikythera mechanism in “Ancient Greek Eclipse Calculator Marked Olympics”.