Stranger Than Fishing

Decoding the Heavens - Solving the mystery of the world's first computer by Jo MarchantOne of the joys of non-fiction is that some real life stories can be as exciting and unlikely as the most imaginative of stories spun. ‘Decoding the Heavens’ by Jo Marchant, despite the terrible new age self-helpesque title, tells the story of the Antikythera Mechanism. This ancient mechanical artefact was fished up from an Ancient Greek ship wreck at the turn of the 20th century, and stunned the world because such a complex machine should never have existed from this period. There are three threads to this story: the human interest side of those that worked to discover its purpose, the science of what the machine does, and the history of how and why such a thing could possibly exist.

‘Decoding the Heavens’ is a compelling account of those that sought to work out just what this 2,000 year old clockwork computer was for. From its discovery in 1901 to 2006, there is politics, betrayal and intense rivalry as various scientists and mathematicians dedicated their lives racing to be named as the genius that could finally reveal its purpose. The book is accessible to those without scientific knowledge, though some (like me) may end up skipping some of the explanations of mathematical ratios.

Whilst Marchant succeeds with telling the scientific and human interest sides of the story, I found myself wanting more than the relatively paltry chapter that she includes speculating as to the original purpose of this fascinating machine and its context in Ancient Greek society. What makes the Antikythera Mechanism so extraordinary – what drives the entire story – is the absurdity of its existence in the first place. If the Ancient Greeks were capable of creating such complex devices, why was the technology never applied to other machines? Why did it die with their society? Clockwork technology was not reinvented until after the dark ages – just think, mankind could be almost 2,000 years more advanced had the knowledge survived.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Stranger Than Fishing

  1. Do they literally have no idea? I’m sure there must be some conspiracy theorists saving it involves the Luminati and Knights Templar

  2. Pingback: Opulence and Arrogance | Nonfiction Book Club

  3. The Greeks also invented, among other things, steam power, but never used it to make engines. I think their attitude to science was more philosophical than technological so they didn’t necessarily wonder about the practical uses of such things. They also knew about electricity (the word derives from Greek) and even when modern scientists began to explore electro-magnetic effects they could see no purpose for them.
    As for why this knowledge disappeared, many people would blame the rise of an obscure and fanatical Jewish cult. The economic problems which led to the fall of Rome had a lot to do with it. I think it’s always good to be reminded that history does not progress ever onwards and upwards but in fits and starts.

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