Decoding the Heavens

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

James McCormick heartily recommends Jo Marchant’s new book on the anachronistic Antikythera mechanism, Decoding the Heavens:

Science writer Jo Marchant provides the first comprehensive book on the device in the last 35 years, a substantial expansion of her 2006 summary article in Nature (In search of lost time, Nature 444, 534-538 (30 November 2006) | doi:10.1038/444534a) which includes the dramatic new discoveries about the mechanism published in 2008. Decoding the Heavens recounts how each generation of archaeologists examined the mechanism and made judgments about what it was and what it did. The story of the men and women who devoted years trying to discover the nature and purpose of the object binds the scientific tale together, often in tragic ways. Science can be a blood sport and the Antikythera brought out the best and worst in many of its students. Our most recent understanding of the mechanism dramatically changes our beliefs about the role of Greek technology in subsequent Muslim and Christian mechanical devices. Hundreds or perhaps thousands of similar devices were subject to damage, loss, and the re-melting of their brass components. The Antikythera mechanism is one-of-a-kind and that, in itself, is a sobering piece of information about the implosion of culture and technology in late antiquity.

In the end, it was the development of non-destructive testing methods (photography, linear X-ray tomography, microfocus computer tomography, polynomial texture mapping ) that finally allowed the most recent generation of scholars and enthusiasts to precisely determine how the device was assembled and operated without irreversibly damaging the fragile remains. Such space-age technology provided an exact means to measure the components, the associated gear teeth and read the faint inscriptions on metal surfaces, even when the metal parts were buried in limestone and largely corroded away. And it was the assembly of an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists, astronomers, artisans, and historians of science that permits some level of confidence in the latest conclusions.

At the margins, the final few details of the operation and function will remain under debate. Did the Antikythera draw upon centuries-long records of Babylonian star-gazing? Was the Antikythera device an astrological tool for elite Greeks and Romans? Was it a functional demonstration of the philosophical orderliness of the universe (especially that of eclipses)? Was this the grand achievement of the final generations of hyper-literate Greek Stoics before Rome dominated the eastern Mediterranean? Where was it made and what relationship did it have to the devices we know were created by Archimedes in Syracuse [Sicily]? Cicero described one as “a sphere that showed the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets around the Earth.” Knowing what the device did promises to open up new questions of why elite Greeks wanted to make it.

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