Antikythera mechanism: Researchers find clues to an ancient Greek riddle

November 30, 2014
The ancient Antikythera relic rescued from a shipwreck. Credit: Giovanni Dall Orto

(Phys.org)—An ancient Greek astronomical puzzle now has another piece in place.

The New York Times reported the new evidence today in a story about research by James Evans, professor of physics at University of Puget Sound, and Christián Carman, history of science professor at University of Quilmes, Argentina.

The two researchers published a paper advancing our understanding of the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient Greek that modeled the known universe of 2,000 years ago. The heavily encrusted, clocklike mechanism—dubbed the "world's first computer"—was retrieved from an ancient shipwreck on the bottom of the sea off Greece in 1901. The new work is published in the Archive for History of Exact Science.

After several years of studying the mechanism and Babylonian records of eclipses, the collaborators have pinpointed the date when the mechanism was timed to begin—205 B.C. This suggests the mechanism is 50–100 years older than most researchers in the field have thought.

The new work fills a gap in ancient scientific history by indicating that the Greeks were able to predict eclipses and engineer a highly complex machine—sometimes called the world's first computer—at an earlier stage than believed. It also supports the idea that the eclipse prediction scheme was not based on Greek trigonometry (which was nonexistent in 205 B.C.)—but on Babylonian arithmetical methods, borrowed by the Greeks.

Far more conjecturally, this timing also makes an old story told by Cicero more plausible—that a similar mechanism was created by Archimedes and carried back to Rome by the Roman general Marcellus, after the sack of Syracuse and the death of Archimedes in 212 B.C. If the Antikythera mechanism did indeed use an eclipse predictor that worked best for a cycle starting in 205 BC, the likely origin of this machine is tantalizingly close to the lifetime of Archimedes.

Evans and Carman arrived at the 205 B.C. date using a method of elimination that they devised. Beginning with the hundreds of ways that the Antikythera's eclipse patterns could fit Babylonian records (as reconstructed by John Steele, Brown University) the team used their system to eliminate dates successively, until they had a single possibility.

The calculations take into account lunar and solar anomalies (which result in faster or slower velocity), missing solar eclipses, lunar and solar eclipses cycles, and other astronomical phenomena. The work was particularly difficult because only about a third of the Antikythera's eclipse predictor is preserved.

Evans and Carman first presented their ongoing research at a Netherlands conference in June 2013, stimulating debate among their peers. The new online paper will appear in the journal's January 2015 hard copy edition.

Explore further: Archaeologists return to ancient Greek 'computer' wreck site: official

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12 comments

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Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (4) Nov 30, 2014
That sounds like an exciting find, seamlessly and fully constraining to earlier astronomy.

The only downer is that an archaeological result is described not by reference from today (think astronomy, which uses the same reference system), but by a random religious calendar. :-/
travisr
3.4 / 5 (5) Nov 30, 2014
Science and Religion are the strangest of bed fellows. Without religion there would be no science, and without science there would be no sanity.
BSD
3 / 5 (8) Nov 30, 2014
Science and Religion are the strangest of bed fellows. Without religion there would be no science, and without science there would be no sanity.


But this pre-dated christianity so how does your statement make sense?

With the exception of early Islam and their invention of modern numbers, religion is nothing more than a dead hand on science and civilisation generally.
Caliban
4.6 / 5 (5) Nov 30, 2014
That sounds like an exciting find, seamlessly and fully constraining to earlier astronomy.

The only downer is that an archaeological result is described not by reference from today (think astronomy, which uses the same reference system), but by a random religious calendar. :-/


TLOM,

I'm not sure that I'm understanding the drift of this comment, but you can be assured that the astronomical knowledge, understanding and predictive capabilities of the Mesopotamian cultures was very nearly as sophisiticated and accurate as our own, modern, science.

It was from them that the Greeks obtained virtually all of their astronomical knowledge, as well as that of mathematics up to that point.

And, as we all know, Mesopotamian civilization wasn't the only one to posess such astronomical knowledge and predictive capability.

For all intents and purposes, religious observance and science(astronomy/mathematics) have been one and the same for most of human civilization.

contd
Caliban
4.7 / 5 (7) Nov 30, 2014
(both comments are also in response to BSD)

While I agree that Religion has frequently(and famously) supressed Science in the past, and continues --in one way and another-- to do so today, it is unreasonable --even unscientific-- to discount the role of Religion in the development of Science, even if it was virtually all in the past, and simply as a tool to accurately plan religious observance or "interpret the will of Heaven".
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (9) Nov 30, 2014
One thing BBC is famous for is the quality of its documentaries. Here is a fascinating one that they produced in 2012 on the Antikythera mechanism. Enjoy! https://www.youtu...jUqLMgxM
alfie_null
not rated yet Dec 01, 2014
The only downer is that an archaeological result is described not by reference from today (think astronomy, which uses the same reference system), but by a random religious calendar. :-/

The discontinuity around missing year zero is also annoying. Would seconds since the singularity work?
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (2) Dec 01, 2014
@alfie_null: There is no "singularity" in inflationary cosmology of today. "inflationary cosmologies avoid the initial big-bang singularity, rounding them out to a smooth beginning."
[ http://en.wikiped...theorems ]

Our matter universe started 14 billion years ago, when the local spacetime volume dropped out of eternal inflation and heated up to the Hot Big Bang. We don't know much about inflationary physics yet, so it is premature to time earlier events (if any).
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
not rated yet Dec 01, 2014
@travisr, Caliban: "Without religion there would be no science,"; "religious observance and science(astronomy/mathematics) have been one and the same for most of human civilization."; "it is unreasonable --even unscientific-- to discount the role of Religion in the development of Science, even if it was virtually all in the past, and simply as a tool to accurately plan religious observance"

Sagan's Cosmos effectively punctuated such theological claims. The first Greek world empiricists were associated with merkantilism, and it was way before the particular religious myth that the calendar refers to.

Science as we know it was famously developed by Newton et al under the Enlightenment. It was essential to get away from religious magic to finally get back to the non-religious atomist way of combining empiricism with theory.
katesisco
2 / 5 (4) Dec 01, 2014
Wondering about science & religion. Seems that deep history is one of catastrophic upheavals and radiation from Earth gases damaging dna. People migrated from areas where their children died and women failed to carry to term. You may weep as the Jaguar man holding his boneless baby in his arms and curse the Gods, then you move to a new area where your children are born healthy. The Olmecs did. In desperate environmental times Gods are shown to be false. Only in mild weather crisis that dont eliminate the reproductive ability are Gods supported, like now.
mockingbirdflyaway
5 / 5 (4) Dec 01, 2014
Caliban pretty much says it........ In the case of the Babylonians and Greeks, religion was the MOTIVATOR of science, particularly in that of astronomy and mathmatics. See, in babyloninan and greek tradition, along with the traditional gods and goddesses, a large part of their religious canon hinged on omens and the reading of signs, as well as following the phases of the moon for timing of religious ceremonies.

Something like an eclipse (whether solar or lunar) was considered a disastrous omen - whatever you did was basically going to crash and burn or fail horribly. So there was a lot of motivation, among the babylonians in particular, to be able to predict eclipses and other astrological phenomenon, so they could be "prepared" for these events, and other, more mundane ones.
amhinchliffe
not rated yet Dec 03, 2014
I do not think the statement regarding that trigonomoetry was not existend i Greece in 205BC is true.
What about Pythagoras (580-500BC) and Eucleides who wrote "Stihia" around 300BC?

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