Tag Archives: Decoding the Heavens

Opulence and Arrogance

Imagine a society where the ruling class are so wealthy that they gain political power and influence not by accumulating money or land, but by proving themselves in philosophical and religious debate.  Sounds a bit like Voltaire’s utopian vision of El Dorado doesn’t it?  Welcome to Ancient Greece.

The Antikythera MechanismI previously reviewed ‘Decoding the Heavens’, a book which tells the story of how the puzzle of the Antikythera Mechanism (an ancient clockwork computer discovered in a shipwreck) was solved.  Without giving too much away about the mechanism itself, here’s some more details:

  • Its complexity means it probably took several generations of work from master crafstmen to perfect.
  • It contained state of the art astronomical data and would have therefore required input from a top astronomer.
  • It was contained in an ornate box and had inscription on its inputs and outputs which were ‘idiot’s guide’ instructions on how to use it.

From the last bullet point, we can deduce that this is no astronomer’s tool; it is a luxury item.  It seems inconceivable that the Ancient Greeks could make such a machine and yet it never occurred to them that the technology could be useful if applied elsewhere.  Amongst the aristocrats of this society, it was more important to use technology as a religious or philosophical demonstration than to apply the technology for more practical outcomes.  In Europe, it was the invention and development of clockwork that sparked the industrial revolution.

An Ancient Greek also invented the steam engine (to disprove one of Aristotle’s theories) and again they failed to apply the technology to industry.  It’s difficult to get one’s head around a society with such radically different values.

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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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