Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know.
E = M
Energy is eternal delight.
Impearls: 2007-01-21 Archive
A recent issue of the British scientific journal Nature (dated 2006-11-30) has several fascinating articles including a research report on the Antikythera Mechanism, in which a battery of powerful techniques including x-ray computed tomography, high-resolution surface examination together with much painstaking analysis have, more than a century after its discovery at the bottom of the sea, begun to reveal the fascinating secrets of this ancient device. As Jo Marchant puts it in her companion piece “In search of lost time”: 1
Now that close to a comprehensive understanding of the Antikythera Mechanism has emerged from these studies, the picture of the revealed machine is astounding:
Reading the research report’s description of its analysis of the dials and inscriptions on the device is almost like reading an alternate history novel (a sequel to a book by L. Sprague de Camp, say, The Glory that Was), where science took off in antiquity and all this arcane technology that results is accompanied by an impressive Ancient Greek technical vocabulary… except that this is our timeline.
Prior to historians and archaeologists’ realization of what the Antikythera mechanism really was, scholars had no reason to think that ancients were aware of the principle of clockwork-like complex gearing at all. Via the 1st century b.c. Roman architect writer Vitruvius, we know that simple dual gearing, for directional change, was in use following this time frame in a type of water-powered mill. There are still no instances known of the use of gears of any type predating the Antikythera mechanism, however, nor anything of comparable sophistication for beyond a thousand years after.
A revealing excerpt from the Nature report, “Decoding the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism,” by Tony Freeth (Cardiff University, School of Physics and Astronomy), et al., reads as follows: 2
Intriguing questions demanded by the mere existence of an ancient device of the sophistication and elegance of the Antikythera mechanism, of course, include where did it come from, and who built it? The wreck on which the toponymically named mechanism was found, had foundered off the island of Antikythera, lying at the western extremity of the Aegean Sea directly astride important trade routes connecting the Aegean — places like Rhodes, a principal trading entrepot, along with points east and north (e.g., Pergamon) — with the western Mediterranean, most importantly the city of Rome itself. Given the cargo of luxury goods aboard (originating to the east of the ship’s final resting place), it seems very likely that the vessel was indeed bound west, quite probably for Rome, when it abruptly sank in 42 meters (138 feet) of water.
Where then did the mechanism originate and who might have made it? A clue is provided by the fact that in addition to the famous mechanism the ship also carried luxury trade goods which have been identified as originating at Rhodes, as well as other goods that are from Pergamon but which may have been transshipped through Rhodes. As noted before, the Antikythera device itself contains an algorithm built-in to express the “first anomaly” of lunar motion which was worked out in the 2nd century b.c. by the Greek astronomer Hipparchos — perhaps greatest of ancient Greek astronomers; who indeed did much of his work at Rhodes — and on which island afterwards the philosopher Poseidonius (contemporaneously regarded as the most learned man of his age; who did astronomical work himself, and at one point instructed Cicero at Rome) established a school.
Hence the hypothesis that Poseidonius’ school at Rhodes developed the technological traditions — that may have been directly influenced by Hipparchos himself, and which must have taken a good long while to gestate, as the Antikythera mechanism clearly didn't spring whole-cloth out of nowhere — leading to the construction of the machine and others like it; one of which was sent off to Rome.
It never made it, and the rest is (latter day) history.
Beyond its jaw-dropping technology and fascinating provenance, the question of what effect the discovery and decipherment of this ancient technology has on our understanding of history itself, as Jo Marchant observes in her Nature companion piece, is perhaps even more intriguing. As she notes, prior to the Antikythera device it was believed that the advent of clockwork-type mechanisms in 14th century Medieval Europe represented the invention of this fundamental technology at around something like that time frame. Since Antikythera, however, a geared 6th century a.d. Byzantine sundial with four surviving gears (and which probably originally incorporated at least eight) has turned up; 4, 5 while the Medieval Persian scholar/scientist al-Biruni described a “box of the Moon” that is quite like the Byzantine device. (See at right an illustration of an eight-geared lunisolar calendar from al-Biruni’s astrolabe treatise of 996 a.d.) Such an augmented astrolabe from 13th century Iran is still extant today. The step from that to the clocks of 14th century Europe is chronologically and technologically short.
Thus, the history of gearing and clockwork is being revolutionized. Instead of originating late in the Medieval era, as previously assumed (in a form we now see as suspiciously like that of the Antikythera mechanism), now it appears likely that the tremendously sophisticated gearwork that we see reflected in this machine continued to survive in some form in the Greco-Roman world, as displayed in the 6th century Byzantine device; from whence it found a refuge somewhere during the early Medieval period — perhaps in the Baghdad Caliphate — and it may well be that (after say the Mongol destruction of Baghdad during the 13th century) this technology thereupon migrated with scholarly refugees and ended up influencing the West’s own technological trajectory a century or so later.
As François Charette observes in his Nature companion piece “High tech from Ancient Greece,”
all this is not unlike us one fine day discovering that steam engines had actually been invented during the Renaissance, and Newcomen and Watt’s invention of improved steam engines during the 1700’s unbeknownst to us had ultimately derived from that.
An echo with speculative literature is found in the way that the deciphering of the Antikythera mechanism utilized such details as the number of teeth in the assorted gears (unique ratios identifying which heavenly phenomena are being computed or charted on the dials of the machine) along with such things as historic eclipse patterns (the Saros canon) as important indicators of its meaning and function and aids in reconstruction of the design. This sense of using natural law and natural history as one’s keys to the decipherment, is very much akin to a classic science fiction tale from half a century ago, in which scientists investigating the remains of a disappeared alien race and civilization on their home world (Mars), in attempting to decipher their language — which seemed inherently almost impossible due to lack of a “Rosetta stone&rdquo (like the original that assisted in the decipherment of Ancient Egyptian) — ultimately came to realize that science (natural law), knowledge of which was embedded in the technology and writings of the science-savvy aliens, would serve as their universal Rosetta stone.
That story is “Omnilingual” by H. Beam Piper, 7 first published just fifty years ago, in the February 1957 (1957-02) issue of the extremely influential science fiction magazine then known as Astounding Science Fiction, altered a few years later to the still-extant name of Analog. Astounding/Analog for many years was under the inspired editorship of very well-regarded science fiction author John W. Campbell, Jr. — who has since become even better known as the “father of modern science fiction,” as a result of his tutelage and inspiration of a whole generation and host of talented writers — Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, van Vogt, Poul Anderson, the list goes on and on…. Piper’s story, I’d venture to suggest, shows every sign of having profited from Campbell’s famous idea generation process vis-a-vis his authors.
(“Omnilingual” is no longer under copyright today, and can be accessed, with its original Kelly Freas illustrations from Astounding and blurb by John Campbell, at Project Gutenberg.)
The story concludes with the archaeologists reveling in having finally begun comprehending the rudiments of the structure of the Martians’ language, using the periodic table of the elements as a starting point — in the course of which Martha Dane compliments one of her colleagues:
As we see with the Antikythera mechanism, one need not go to Mars or Alpha Centauri to encounter a scientific culture in archaeology. However, one can’t help but wonder… had any of the scientists who deciphered the Antikythera machine read “Omnilingual,” lo these many years before or at some moment since? Did it influence their work, or even career; did they realize they were retracing the steps, in a sense performing the verification of a scientific hypothesis, which is implicit in the story?
Nature, Vol. 444, No. 7119 (issue date 2006-11-30), Editor's Summary of Antikythera articles: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v444/n7119/edsumm/e061130-09.html
2 T. Freeth, Y. Bitsakis, X. Moussas, J. H. Seiradakis, A. Tselikas, H. Mangou, M. Zafeiropoulou, R. Hadland, D. Bate, A. Ramsey, M. Allen, A. Crawley, P. Hockley, T. Malzbender, D. Gelb, W. Ambrisco, and M. G. Edmunds, “Decoding the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism,” Nature, Vol. 444, Issue No. 7119 (issue dated 2006-11-30), pp. 587-591; doi:10.1038/nature05357. Also, Figures and Tables, Supplementary Information, and Box 1: Astronomical cycles known to the Babylonians.
4 J.V. Field and M.T. Wright (both of The Science Museum, London, SW7 2DD, England), “Gears from the Byzantines: A portable sundial with calendrical gearing,” Annals of Science, Taylor & Francis, Vol. 42, Issue No. 2, issue dated 1985 March (1985-03), pp. 87-138; doi: 10.1080/00033798500200131.
5 Francis Maddison (Curator of the Museum of History and Science, Oxford OX1 3AZ, UK), “Early mathematical wheelwork: Byzantine calendrical gearing,” Nature, Vol. 314, Issue No. 6009 (issue dated 1985-03-28), pp. 316-317; doi: 10.1038/314316b0.
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