Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Anitkythera Mechanism

A couple of weeks ago, I finished reading a book entitled Human Accomplishment by Charles Murray. In the book, Murray attempts to "write the ultimate resume" for the human race. If you like lists, this is the book for you. He covers the 20 most important people and events in almost every field of science, technology, and art. His overall conclusion, by the way, is that human accomplishment has been on the decline for the last couple of hundred years. I know this flies in the face of the fact that this same period the spans most of the industrial revolution. But Murray is talking about a sort of normalized per capita accomplishment. For all of the six billion people on the planet, we just ain't making 'em like we use to.

But this isn't what caught my attention in the book. What really stopped me cold was a description in the early part of the book on an archaeological artifact that simply shouldn't exist. Murray brought my attention to what is called the Antikythera Mechanism. The mechanism is a corroded mass of bronze that was found at the bottom of the Aegean just off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901. Sponge divers found the wreck of an ancient ship that had sunk about 50 BC. Under a pile of amphorae and other early artifacts they found this blob of metal. Only it wasn't a blob. It appeared to have gears which were supposed to have been invented a thousand years later. The hunk was brought back to the Greek National Museum where much more started to become apparent as the artifact dried out and cracked open. It had many Greek characters inscribed on it as well as various lines that are the mark of a precision instrument. Nothing like it had been found before nor since from that era. It is a one-of-a-kind.

The mechanism sat as a curiosity in the museum for almost half a century. Some archaeologists did speculate on its function. Perhaps it was an astrolabe? Then Derek de Solla Price, a fellow at Princeton, picked up the trail. It became his life's obsession to detail the structure and function of this enigmatic device. Price concluded that the Mechanism was a very sophisticated astronomical clock that showed a wide variety of solar and lunar data. The "computation" was done by using sophisticated gearing, even including a differential gear which was not known to have existed until the Renaissance. Price thought his publications on the Mechanism would cause a complete re-write of Greek technology history. Wrong. It is amazing to me how something so spectacular can be overlooked.

But not by everyone. More recently, a British team has done an in-depth new analysis of the corroded artifact using a newly developed CT scanner to see inside the device. Their images are astounding. The Mechanism only becomes more beautiful. They published some of the preliminary results of their studies in Nature in November, 2006.

Within a week of my reading about the Antikythera Mechanism for the first time, John Seabrook published a terrific article about it in The New Yorker. It is well worth the read.

So what to make of all of this? Clearly, it is easy to underestimate what the ancients knew and were capable of making. I realize how arrogant and egocentric I am to feel that we have all of this technology when two thousand years ago someone could make something so sophisticated. And so beautiful. Can you imagine how this long-lost inventor must have felt when he/she learned that the device had gone to the bottom? It is enough to make you weep. It is also enough to make you sit back in awe now that it is back among the living.

(Photo from Wikipedia)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is completely fascinating. So was the piece in Nature. Yours is a terrific blog. I've been reading backward from the latest entry, and I'm not stopping now.