Saturday, April 25, 2009

Decoding the Heavens: A 2000 year old computer and the century long search to discover its secrets

by Jo Marchant

Deciphering the Antikythera Mechanism

Most people would not have heard of the Antikythera Mechanism - it is a 2000 year old device which was discovered in 1900 in an ancient ship wreck close to the island of Antikythera between Cape Malea and Crete in the Mediterranean. The device was so much damaged and in many fragments of corroded lumps that it could be fully deciphered only recently using the latest microfocus X-ray imaging and computed tomography (CT). We now understand that it was meant to be used as complex scientific calculator (or an analog computer) for calculating astronomical positions.

In a fascinating story written more like a detective novel, Jo Marchant takes us through the discovery of this device from the ship wreck by sponge divers, the early futile attempts in figuring out what the device was, the years it spent in anonymity in the Athens archeological museum, the laborious efforts by some scientists in the last few decades who figured out parts of it, and the final culmination of its near complete understanding by 2008 when better technologies were available.

Written very well, with simple and clear explanations of the basic science involved the author is able to bring out clearly the trials and tribulations involved in scientific research. In addition, the author succeeds in bringing out the excitement of solving a mystery and educating the reader of the gap in our understanding of the progress made by the ancient greek scientists two thousand years ago. The Antikythera Mechanism not only proves that complex geared mechanisms existed (till recently thought be invented in the 18th century) then but also that they were in rather common use because of the detailed instructions provided in the device for enabling its operation by the layman.

I also very much liked the author's attempt to figure out who in the ancient greek world would have devised such a mechanism and how it could have ended in the ship wreck. The logic as well as the detailed research makes the book a pleasure to read.

1 comment:

Rajesh Rao said...


Your blog "Deciphering the Antikythera Mechanism" is intriguing. You will be surprised to know about Talakaveri (Coorg) where River Kaveri Originates.
This is the origin of river Kaveri on the eastern slopes of Brahmagiri peak at 1350 metres altitude, about 8 km by road from Bhagamandala. An enclosure around the spring called Gundige is connected to a small pond beside. The water from the pond goes underground and comes out after about one kilometer down the hill.
On a predetermined date and time of Tulasankranthi every year the spring from Gundige overflows called Thirthodbhava
Legends also has it that every year on Tulasankramana day which falls approximately on 17 October Goddess Parvati appears in the Kundike as the sacred teerthodbhava. This occasion is marked by the sudden spring of water in the kundike and is considered very auspicious. This happens every year on same day, There are numerous research but no one seems to have found how the Sudden Spring appears on every year on Only that predetermined time and date.

More Secrets to uncover...

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Rajesh Rao