BOOK REVIEW: Decoding the Heavens

Decoding the Heavens
A 2000-Year Old Computer – And the Century Long Search to Discover its Secrets
Jo Marchant
Da Capo Press
(c) 2009 by the author

I suppose that anyone interested in the history of science in the years BCE or archaeological oddities has heard of the Antikythera Mechanism. Found in a shipwreck off the coast of a Greek island, the box of gears and dials has been a puzzle and a marvel (a puzzling marvel?) for decades.

Marchant has dredged up the history of the device, from its collection off the Aegean seabed up through the first decade of the twenty-first century. Well, to be honest, the object itself hasn’t done much. It sat in storage in the National Museum of Athens for years before anyone decided to take a look at it. The museum – and the divers that worked on the wreck – were more interested in the statues and other objects of obvious value.

The Mechanism turned out to be a specialized device for computing the many lunar cycles – and possibly some dials that compute planetary positions as well (parts are still missing). Marchant doesn’t spend much time on the astronomy or mathematics behind it; she’s far more interested in the archaeology and personalities in its story.

There are the sponge divers who donned some of the first diving suits to get down to the wreck and fought off the “bends” and nitrogen narcosis. The scientists who studied it – and let their own personalities and beliefs affect their results. The technicians who devised new ways to examine the thing – even if they had to bring their equipment to Athens to do so. It’s not like Greece was going to let the thing leave the country; and it’s almost certainly too fragile to even leave the museum….

Stepping back from the story of the Mechanism itself, Marchant has used it to present what comes across as a ‘history of archaeology’. From the first steps that to a contemporary eye are little better than plunder to modern high-tech imaging, and the interest in the context of an item. Now that we know what the Mechanism does, the questions of “Where was it made?” and “Why was it made?” are being examined.

A subsidiary question that she asks, but doesn’t fully answer, is why these “ancients” never did much with all this obvious mechanical knowledge and skill. “They had slaves to do the grunt work for them” is an obvious – and wrong – answer. My guess is that they felt that manual labor, or any sort of working with one’s hands, was beneath the dignity of the Educated Elite. Plato, for one, put “Philosopher Kings” at the top of the structure in his Republic. Workers and craftsmen were at the bottom. A lot of these gadgets like the Antikythera Mechanism seem to be nothing more than novelty one-offs or educational tools to demonstrate a specific principle. Actually using them to benefit society at large never came to mind.

There’s a general sense that “the Ancients” were scientific illiterates (a polite way of calling them stupid). Didn’t they all believe that the Sun went around the Earth? Maybe they did, but that’s no reason to be condescending. Unless you have a very good telescope, there’s no way to prove otherwise. And if your mathematical model is good enough to fit your observations, then what does it matter? One should actually be impressed that using nothing but naked eye observations collected over centuries, the “ancient Greeks” of over two millennia ago were able to determine so many of the cycles in the heavens. If you want to know how we can calculate eclipses so far in advance these days, it’s because they did all the math….

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