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The Antikythera Mechanism and the (Temporary) Death of Science

General News"Science and the technical wonders it produces CAN blaze suddenly towards the heavens and then just as quickly return to the desert sands, lost and forgotten."

The Antikythera Device, a computer from ancient times recently determined to be an accurate mechanism for determining the movements of the Sun, Moon and five known planets of the ancient world. Source: Wikipedia, taken from APOD for December 5, 2006.
One of the quiet but great stories of 2006 was the confirmation that a lump of corroded metal retrieved more than a century ago from the Aegean Sea was in fact an extremely ingenious ancient computer revealing a computational sophistication unmatched until the fourteenth century. In an article in the November issue of Nature, a panel of scientists and classical scholars led by Michael Edmunds released their findings on the Antikythera Mechanism, named after its place of discovery in A.D. 1900 in a Roman shipwreck. Said Edmunds, "Before its sojourn on the sea bed, (the Antikythera Mechanism) computed and displayed the movement of the Sun, the Moon and possibly the planets around Earth, and predicted the dates of future eclipses. It’s one of the most stunning artifacts we have from classical antiquity."

The Mechanism, enclosed within a wooden case a little bit smaller than a shoebox, contains at least 30 gear wheels, each one handcut from a single sheet of bronze, and ranging in size from nearly the width of the case to less than a centimeter across. On the front and sides are a number of dials and windows showing the zodiac, the day of the year, the phases of the moon, and the positions of the sun, moon and five planets known at the time. On the back are two spiral dials--one showing the 235 month Metonic cycle, which correlates the orbit of the moon around the earth with the earth's orbit around the sun, and the other the 223 month Saros cycle, used to predict ecllipses.

We even have the names of who could have built this technological wonder. The wrecked ship that the Mechanism was on could be dated to sometime in the first century B.C. and probably from the Greek islands of Rhodes and Cos. On the device itself was a dial to compensate for errors in the Egyptian calendar which was used at that time. This dial was adjusted in such a way that researchers were able to determine an exact date - 80 B.C. - when the Mechanism was last set. Classical scholars also know that just seven years earlier, in 87 B.C., a Greek named Geminus wrote a book which describes a device that sounds remarkably like the Antikythera Mechanism.
Jay Hilgartner sits at a computer station in today's modern Library of Alexandria where he recently visited. The new library is built on the site of the ancient Library of Alexandria, where detailed plans for building a device such as "The Antikethera Mechanism" may have been kept. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted. Click HERE for interior of library, and HERE for exterior.
Perhaps it was built by Geminus himself or by another astronomer mentioned by him - Poseidonius of Rhodes. Poseidonius is also mentioned by Cicero as the designer of an instrument which records the movement of the Sun, Moon, and the five planets. Or, others say, it may have been designed centuries earlier by the brilliant Archimedes or by another Rhodes’ astronomer Hipparchus, who died around 120 B.C.

Suffice it to say that the sophistication of the Antikythera Mechanism gives all lovers of science and civilization pause, for it challenges the idea of continued uninterrupted human progress. Science and the technical wonders it produces CAN blaze suddenly towards the heavens and then just as quickly return to the desert sands, lost and forgotten. Indeed, the Hellenistic world that the Mechanism was created in did just that.

The great city of Alexandria in Egypt, the center of Hellenistic culture, once boasted a library and museum containing over half a million books, attracting scholars from all the known world. It was the first deliberately built great research center, museum, and library all in one, lavishly supported by the first three Ptolemy pharaohs. The library flourished for almost 300 years until it was burned in 48 B.C. during Julius Caesar’s war with Pompey. Many books were lost, but many also survived in a branch library in Alexandria at a temple complex called the Serapeum. With the Roman conquest, Alexandria’s golden age had passed but scholars still regarded the city as the place to complete their studies, that is, until the fourth century A.D. when the Serapeum was destroyed by an angry Christian mob. The books were either burned or lost in time. It is sobering to think that a scroll describing how to construct the Antikythera Mechanism may have been destroyed either in the library’s first fire or in the destruction of the Serapeum.

Click read more for the rest of this fascinating story.

The exterior of the ancient temple site of the Serapeum. Photo by Jay Hilgartner.
What else was lost in the fires? We have an idea partly from what was saved. Copies from the library of priceless works on science and the arts located in other cities eventually made their way back to Europe to ignite the Renaissance a thousand years later. Just a small sample of Alexandria’s genius - - Euclid’s Elements, the textbook in geometry used well into the 20th Century; Eratosthenes’ calculations for the tilt of the earth (he was off by only 5 seconds) and the circumference of the earth (off by only 225 miles); Claudius Ptolemy’s Geography (a copy of which would eventually reach the young explorer Christopher Columbus), his Optics (describing refraction), and his amazing Almagest on astronomy which includes the oldest surviving star catalogue; and Hero’s brilliant technical works including Automata, the first book on robotics, and his Pneumatica, Metrica, Mechanica, and Catoptrica covering a breathtaking range from the measurement of surfaces, to how to move heavy objects, to the physics of curved mirrors. There were histories written of the ancient world, treatises on medicine and anatomy, art, literature, rhetoric and religion, more works outlining scientific principles (including Hero on the principles of what we call today the steam engine), all lost, and known only by brief mentions in other preserved works from that era. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all is the disappearance of a work by the astronomer Aristarchus written in the third century B.C., describing the sun as the center of a system where the much smaller planets, including the earth, revolve around it; in other words, a heliocentric solar system 1,800 years before Copernicus! Today, we know of Aristarchus’ brilliant insight because it is mentioned and then dismissed by Archimedes in his The Sand Reckoner, a copy of which managed to survive to the present day.
A sketch of the internal workings of the Antikythera Mechanism. Source: Scientific American article, June 1959: by Derek J. de Solla Price

Twenty four years after the burning of the Serapeum and the destruction of its library, Alexandria’s last great scientist, a woman named Hypatia, was pulled from her chariot by an angry mob of religious fanatics and brutally murdered. "It was," as Carl Sagan writes in his Cosmos, "as if an entire civilization had undergone some self-inflicted brain surgery, and most of its memories, discoveries, ideas, and passions were extinguished irrevocably."

Recently, I had the good fortune to be able to visit modern Alexandria. I stood on the ruins of the Serapeum and was even taken down by my guide to the inner chambers below the temple complex where a library of over 40,000 scrolls were said to have been shelved, all either destroyed by the mob’s fire in 391 A.D., or lost in the process of trying to save them from a city no longer friendly to the idea of a great library or its scholars. Viewing these ruins from the safety of the 21st century, where science and reason overwhelmingly rules the day in spite of the hysteria of a new generation of religious extremists, I felt sad about the loss but very thankful to be alive in these times. This feeling was further bolstered when I was able to visit the new Library of Alexandria, a magnificently designed modern building on the site of the old library and across the street from the University of Alexandria. It was a weekday and the library was filled with students, many of the young Islamic women wearing the traditional haygab scarf covering their hair. All I could do was smile. Despite all the world’s problems, it was an honor to be in this place and in this ancient city in these times.
A dark and mysterious passageway under the ancient remains of the Serapeum in Egypt. Some 40,000 ancient scrolls were said to have been salvaged from the great library at Alexandria and shelved here after the destruction of the great library. They remained here for only a short time until this site was also destroyed by fire in A.D. 391. Photo by Jay Hilgartner.

Barring some horrendous disaster like a nuclear war or an asteroid impact, I find it hard to believe that the world’s love of knowledge could fall so fast as to repeat what happened to the Antikythera Mechanism. My cause for optimism has very much to do with the students hard at work at the Alexandria library and other libraries around the world, as well as the work of science organizations like the Arkansas Oklahoma Astronomical Society, all bringing the wonders of learning directly to the people. Yes, Alexandria did suffer the consequences of war, religious extremism, and even earthquakes. But what really aborted the dawning of a scientific and industrial revolution 1,400 years earlier than when it finally happened had more to do with the alienation the common people felt from ancient Alexandria’s libraries and its scholars.

From Pythagoras all the way to Hypatia, the sentiment among the most learned of the time was that the pursuit of pure knowledge should be reserved for the enlightened few. It was believed that only the intellectually favored, which in practice increasingly meant the aristocracy, should be allowed access to the secrets of the cosmos. Even the building of devices based on pure knowledge was also looked down upon; it was manual labor, not worthy of a true philosopher. And, to compound the problem, ancient Greece and Rome were slave societies with little demand from the governing classes for labor saving devices. They didn't want another Spartacus with an army of unemployed former slaves who could rise up and overthrow their privileged positions. So, for example, even if the brilliant Hero had thought to combine his steam driven device with a piston (already invented earlier) to produce a steam engine, it is likely he would not have found a market for it. The thought to develop machines to ease the labor of the masses may never have even occurred to him. So in the end, the people of Alexandria felt no connection to the scientific revolution taking place in their midst, and cynical manipulators seeking political power could easily misuse the new Christian religion to incite mobs against Alexandria’s great centers of learning.

A lesson from ancient Alexandria and the Antikythera Mechanism is that if we are to preserve and continue the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, then we must include as much as possible EVERYONE. This has been America’s genius, whether in the grand form of the Smithsonian museums lining the mall from the Capitol to the Washington monument--and, to this day, admission free by-the-way, or in the form of the thousands of organizations dedicated to bringing science, history, and the arts to the people. The AOAS is very much a part of this informal society of volunteer layman scholars, bringing the wonders of the night sky to the citizens of western and northwest Arkansas.

So, AOAS members, when you find yourself freezing on a night when your audience is moody (no pun intended to your president) and the clouds are not cooperating with your telescopes, take comfort in the fact that in your work to bring the heavens to the general public, you are also a firebreak for civilization, an insurance policy against any more burning libraries or lost technological wonders. And that’s a lot to be proud of. Happy New Year, AOAS!

Sources: "In Search of Lost Time", Nature 444, 534-538 (30 Nov. 2006);

“The Rise and Fall of Alexandria” by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, Penguin Group, New York, 2006;

”Cosmos” by Carl Sagan, Random House, New York, 1980.

Suggested further reading: An American Mathematical Society website with JAVA animations of some of the Antikythera's movements is available by clicking here.

An excellent article by Philip Coppens is available by clicking here.
The Antikythera Mechanism and the (Temporary) Death of Science | 2 comments | Create New Account
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The Antikythera Mechanism and the (Temporary) Death of Science
Authored by: dgrosvold onSunday, January 21 2007 @ 12:51 am EST
Jay - This is a wonderful article. Thanks so much for sharing your travels and thirst for knowledge with us. You are right - it is a wonderful time we live in -- for knowledge is available for free to the masses. Unfortunately, so is misinformation. It's up to us as individuals to be discerning in what we believe and understand in this world. I'm proud to be a part of AOAS, because we are aware of these pitfals, and strive as a group to present accurate, verifiable information of scientifiic value to our members.

I have been reading about the Antikythera Mechanism. It is indeed evidence that this kind of scientific knowledge did, in fact, exist prior to the dark age of religious oppression that came after the destruction of the ancient library at Alexandria. I can't help wonder just how far back in history man's quest for scientific knowledge actually goes - and how much has been lost due to ignorance and superstition.

Dave - Greenwood, AR
The Antikythera Mechanism and the (Temporary) Death of Science
Authored by: bobmoody onSunday, January 21 2007 @ 04:03 am EST
As a moderator for this site, I have the responsibility of allowing stories to post, or not to post, depending on their content. It has been such a pleasure to have allowed this story to become part of our articles archive. It is, without doubt, one of the BEST stories ever posted to our humble little website, and I am so proud of you submitting it, Jay.

I'm like Dave, and Carl Sagan and so many others, who have had to sit and ponder where we might be today if things hadn't happened the way they did in Alexandria and in the Great Library there? What could Galileo, and Kepler, and Tycho and Copernicus have done for us if that ancient knowledge had survived to their time? Who might have been the first to understand General Relativity before Einstein? It could easily have happened if the world hadn't lost that knowledge, if only they hadn't performed that self-labotomy on the human intellect.

And I thank you for your kind words for AOAS, and the realization that what we try to do really is worthy of being done, if for no other reason than to help provide that buffer for the modern period and insure that we don't self-destruct again. It's an awesome responsibility, but one which we undertake with our eyes wide-open!

Thanks again for a GREAT story, Jay. I hope you give us another one someday soon.

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